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Freaky Firsts Day 2: Detention (2012)

Detention 2011Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Joseph Kahn

Writers: Joseph Kahn & Mark Palermo

Cast: Alison Woods, Julie Dolan, Shanley Caswell, Josh Hutcherson, Joe Keane, Parker Bagley, Marque Richardson, Aaron David Johnson, Spencer Locke, Travis Fleetwood, Carrie Wiita, Tiffany Boone, Erica Shaffer, Walter Perez, Dane Cook

Plot: Head cheerleader Taylor (Alison Woods) doesn’t show up for school, as she’s been inconveniently murdered by a movie slasher named Cinderhella. Since she’s unavailable, the film instead focuses on Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a depressed young vegetarian whose suicidal tendencies start to flare up. She’s actually saved from an attempted hanging when Cinderhella attacks her, prompting her to fight her way loose. Unfortunately, nobody believes her, even though a fellow student was butchered just that morning.

Cinderhella turns up again at Riley’s house that night, but she again manages to escape as he (she? I think it might actually supposed to be a she) gets caught up in the neighbor’s swing set, then leaves her in a pool. She tries to convince hipster heartthrob Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) that she’s not crazy, but instead somehow winds up on a double-date with him and her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), while she’s stuck with nerd-with-a-crush Sander (Aaron David Johnson).

There are several irrelevant scenes after this, including a football game in which the star player has flashbacks to his own conception (his father was a fly monster), and a fight at a party that wasn’t a costume party after all. That party ends with lunatic jock Billy (Parker Bagley) getting killed by Cinderhella, making us all hope she’s just getting started. Finally, three hours and 27 minutes into this 93-minute film, Riley and several of her friends are given Saturday detention. At night. During the Prom. For the crime of being at a party off-campus when one of their fellow students was killed. Then again, the principal is Dane Cook, so maybe that makes sense in his brain.

Oh yes, there’s also some time-travel, body-swapping, and a kid who has been in detention for 19 years. It’s… it doesn’t even make sense in context. But eventually, it leads us to our cast barricading the school library while Cinderhella tries to break in and kill them and a weird kid (Walter Perez) warns them that the world is going to end in 9 minutes 19 years ago and I think I just got a nosebleed writing that sentence. Riley uses a stuffed bear to go back in time and stop the apocalypse, which is evidently being caused by Clapton, or maybe Sander, or maybe Poppa Freaking Smurf for all I can tell at this point. (As they’re in 1992, my wife commented that the high school must be how “old people feel when they watch a movie about when they grew up and it’s all wrong.” “Baby,” I replied, “I think we’re the old people now.”) And they fix the timestream and… the principal is cool now… and… and… oh, and Cinderhella turns out to be Sander, who fights Clapton in a Mortal Kombat-esque sequence that leads into a Breakfast Club ending, and now I want to go somewhere and cry.

Thoughts: Detention’s inclusion in this list is the result of what I like to call “NetFlix Roulette.” My wife scrolled through the available horror movies with the intention of watching whatever it landed on, then did it again when the first winner was in black and white. I think she regretted this almost immediately.

Detention takes an interesting approach by starting with a character – Alison Woods’s Taylor – who is so thoroughly repulsive as a human being that you’re actually quite happy when the killer “Cinderhella” pops in and slaughters her after only a few minutes of her railing to the camera about how to be as pathetically shallow as possible. It’s actually a nice little bit with a decoy protagonist, although director Joseph Kahn takes it a little farther than is wise – two more minutes of Taylor and I may have turned it off and looked for another film to review.

After the admittedly satisfying death scene at the beginning, the movie then goes through a seemingly interminable sequence introducing our cast – a series of teenagers who are all miserable in different ways that are allegedly entertaining to watch, but in fact, just make them all seem pretentious as hell. Josh Hutcherson, for example, seems poised to be our hero, and therefore distinguishes himself by promising to start a blog where he dismisses any music popular enough for anybody else to have heard of and then argues the relative merits of Patrick Swayze as an action hero versus Steven Segal. Shortly thereafter, my wife started to announce, “Isn’t this supposed to be dying people? I want these people to die and nobody is dying.”

The film cuts around to assorted Family Guy-style aside scenes, frequently punctuated by title cards and weird on-screen commentary, such as assuring us that the movie Detention takes a firm stance against drunk driving, which is probably a relief to all the parents who were waiting for this particular movie to teach their children that valuable lesson. I’m all for metafiction – movies and TV shows that are, in fact, about movies and TV shows can be highly entertaining. But whereas something like Scream was both an interesting commentary on horror movies and an entertaining slasher film in its own right, Detention seems to have been generated by scrawling a bunch of pop culture references onto blank Cards Against Humanity cards, playing a few rounds, and then calling that a script. (I include casting Dane Cook as the principal in this category.)

This movie has many, many faults, but I think most of them can be summed up by comparing it to a shotgun. Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo clearly intended to parody a dozen different things, but rather than figuring out what point they wanted to make and focusing in on it, they stuffed as many different things down the barrel as they could and shot at the wall, hoping something – anything – would hit the intended target. What they got instead of a hodgepodge of unfocused, uncoordinated scenes that don’t actually seem to mean anything. They aren’t funny enough to work as sketch comedy, and they’re certainly not cohesive enough to make for an effective scary movie.

In the end, Detention is probably one of the scarier movies I’ve seen recently, although not for any of the reasons the filmmakers probably intended. (If you want a movie that has a similar sensibility but is actually… y’know… good… I recommend John Dies at the End.)

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Get ready for the Man of Steel…

Man-of-Steel-Flight-Poster-550x801It is absolutely no surprise or secret that the movie I’m the most excited for this year is finally hitting theaters this Friday. Lifelong comic book fan, and more importantly, Superman fan that I am, Man of Steel couldn’t possibly get here soon enough to suit me. I’m on a mini-vacation with my fiance, Erin, right now, but once I’m home with my DVD shelf I fully intend to immerse myself in the Superman films of the past. Chances are you’re aware of the four Christopher Reeve movies, the one Brandon Routh movie… you no doubt know about the Fleischer Studios shorts of the early 40s, the assorted TV shows starring George Reeves, Dean Cain, and Tom Welling. You may even know about the Helen Slater Supergirl movie, and you no doubt watched the 90s Superman: The Animated Series starring Tim Daly.

Today, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of a few Superman movies you may not know about. In 2007, Warner Brothers and DC Comics began a series of animated movies based on their superhero comics, beginning with a Superman film. Many of these are available via Netflix steaming, and all of them are being flooded back into stores this week, with the big Man of Steel push. Here are those DCU Animated Superman movies you may not have seen…

Superman-DoomsdaySuperman/Doomsday (2007). The first film in the series was based on the early 90s Death of Superman storyline from the comic books, although it is a very trimmed-down version. In this version, Metropolis is attacked by a rampaging beast that comes to be known as Doomsday, a mindless killing machine that threatens to destroy his city. Superman faces down the beast, seemingly at the cost of his own life, but both friend and foe alike are unwilling to accept that his death is that simple. The film wasn’t bad — Adam Baldwin made for a good Superman and James Marsters was a great Lex Luthor. Anne Heche’s Lois Lane was weak, though, and I think they trimmed a bit too much to allow the story to fit in the extremely abbreviated running time of the animated series. Still, this was the DC Animated Universe’s first shot, and the series got better very quickly.

Superman-Batman Public Enemies Blu-RaySuperman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009). This movie reunited the TV voices of Superman and Batman, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy, for the first of two films based on a comic book series by Jeph Loeb. In Public Enemies Lex Luthor (also voiced by his TV actor, Clancy Brown), has been elected president of the United States, and uses that influence to draw together a group of heroes under the government payroll. Luthor uses the threat of an impending strike of a massive meteor of Kryptonite to turn the public against Superman and he and Batman go on the run, fighting their fellow heroes in an attempt to clear their names and reveal Luthor as the villain he is. This is a really great flick, one that plays not just with Superman, but with the larger DC Universe, with lots of heroes and villains that casual fans may be introduced to for the first time.

Superman-Batman-ApocalypseSuperman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010). The sequel to Public Enemies again reunites Daly and Conroy. The shower of Kryptonite meteors in the first movie brought with it a large chunk with some mysterious technology inside. Batman investigates the chunk to discover a girl in suspended animation — Kara Zor-El (Summer Glau), daughter of Superman’s uncle, and the first blood family he has seen since coming to Earth as an infant. The heroes take Kara to Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) to teach her how to use her powers and help her adapt to life on Earth, but she soon becomes embroiled in a battle between the heroes and the powerful villain Darkseid (Andre Braugher). I rather like this movie even more than Public Enemies, adding Supergirl to the mix and bringing in the most dangerous foe Superman has ever faced.

All Star SupermanAll-Star Superman (2011). Based on a graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, in All-Star, Superman (James Denton) receives a fatal overdose of solar radiation while thwarting one of Lex Luthor’s (Anthony LaPaglia) schemes. The radiation is killing him slowly, and giving him additional powers in the process. With his time limited, Superman embarks on a quest to make permanent, lasting changes to the world, leaving it better before his death. This film is based on one of the greatest Superman comics of all time and, sadly, came out just days after the death of its screenwriter, Justice League Unlimited showrunner Dwayne McDuffie. If you can only watch one of the movies on this list, or if you don’t understand what makes Superman a brilliant and compelling character, this is the movie to watch.

Superman Vs the EliteSuperman Vs. the Elite (2012). George Newburn, who voiced Superman on the Justice League cartoons, returns to the character in this film based on a comic book by Joe Kelly. Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes) is a new superhero, one whose team the Elite initially appears like a welcome addition in the war on crime. Superman soon realizes, however, that Manchester and the Elite have much more violent and permanent solutions to villainy than he is comfortable with. As the people of Earth start to gravitate towards the Elite and question whether Superman is outdated, the man of steel is forced to confront questions of his own relevance. Like All-Star, this is a brilliant story made into a very good movie. This film is the answer to everyone who ever says that Superman is “too old fashioned,” “too good,” or just plain “boring.” This is a story that explains the importance of Superman, and why he has to be who he is… because the alternative is chilling.

Superman UnboundSuperman Unbound (2013). The most recent film on this list came out just last month. based on a graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Matt Bomer takes on the role of Superman in this film. Brainiac, a highly-intelligent alien that menaced Krypton in the past, has come to Earth, terrifying Supergirl (Molly Quinn), who remembers the villain from Krypton. Brainiac travels through the universe, miniaturizing and stealing cities from different planets before destroying them, and Metropolis is his next target. The graphic novel this movie is based on is great, the movie is just okay. Like some of the earlier films on the list, it suffers a little from having to strip away a bit too much from the original story to fit in the short animated running time. For the Superman fan, though, it’s still worth watching.

Gut Reactions: Ruby Sparks (2012)

Ruby SparksDirectors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Writer: Zoe Kazan

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat

Plot: After an early success, writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has been stuck with writer’s block for years and has found failure after failure in his relationships with women. Upon the advice of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins writing about a girl he sees in a dream. After a few dreams, the girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in his home, miraculously brought to life. The two begin a romance that starts to crack when it becomes apparent that Ruby wants more of a life than the sequestered world Calvin has created for her, and in the end, Calvin finds himself in a struggle between love with the girl of his dream and trying to control that which he made.

Thoughts: Every so often those Netflix recommendations get it right. I’d never heard of this film, but when I read the description I figured I’d give it a try. I had no idea just how deeply it would hit me.

Admittedly, I may have a bit of an occupational bias when it comes to this movie. I may not be quite the success as a writer that Calvin Weir-Fields is (of course, as he reminds us during the film, he’s “no J.D. Salinger”), but I think any person who really pursues creative arts will be able to relate to this movie. The story hits upon a time in Calvin’s life when he’s struggling between crushing creative blockage and unbearable loneliness, something that’s all too real. And in fact, I can’t imagine there’s any writer out there who didn’t – at his weakest point – fantasize about doing exactly what he does in this movie. The idea of creating the perfect person, the perfect companion out of your imagination is tantalizing, powerful, and engaging.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-

Of course, this is just a fantasy, and like most fantasies it doesn’t really maintain if you hold it up to the light of reality. We all may have imagined being able to create the perfect girl, but a little critical thinking will reveal a thousand reasons this would be a bad idea. Zoe Kazan (who both played Ruby and wrote the screenplay) takes this idea and dissects it beautifully. Early on Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) points out the difference between this perfect, idealized girl and the realities of a functional adult relationship. When Ruby turns out to be more real and less idealized than Calvin thought, he begins to use his writing to manipulate her, which again backfires. His first effort makes her frighteningly clingy and needy, the next turns her into a bounding child. Even attempting to erase his mistakes bounces back on him, as he instead leaves her an emotional wreck.

The climax of the movie, I admit, is somewhat painful to watch. Frustrated and angry, Calvin reveals the truth of Ruby’s existence to her and “writes” her into performing a series of degrading, humiliating tasks (barking like a dog, for instance) to demonstrate his power over her. I cringed at each moment, watching him take someone he loved and turn her into a puppet. Each time he finished a sentence I found myself asking how he could do it, how he could possibly treat someone he loved in such a fashion, how anyone could be so frustrated that he’d do something that so utterly stains his own soul? Like the most painful things we see, though, it’s at its most horrible when we question what we would do in that same predicament. I don’t think I’d have it in me to do what Calvin does at the end, but it’s very easy to say that, knowing I’ll never have to face such a situation. In the heat of the moment, who can say what any of us are truly capable of? And if we ever did cross that line, would we ever be deserving of forgiveness, or capable of forgiving ourselves?

Although billed as a comedy, Ruby Sparks is definitely not cut from the standard romcom cloth that churns out so many practically identical movies a year. It’s not even the same as other “romantic dramadies.” For example, I recently watched Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, another romance from last year that treads the line between comedy and drama, including a dose of speculative fiction for the sake of the plot. In that one, Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley set out to find his lost high school sweetheart amidst the collapse of society that comes after final efforts to prevent an extinction-level asteroid from colliding with Earth fail. (Yes, this too is ostensibly a comedy.) While that movie wasn’t bad, in the end I found it sadly predictable. Ruby Sparks, on the other hand, isn’t predictable at all. Once Kazan deals with some of the more necessary tropes (showing how people react to this mysterious girl who’s appeared in Calvin’s life, a little interaction with his wacky family), the film is left in a sort of free roaming state where it could go absolutely anywhere. I never felt like I knew how the movie was going to end, which is probably the most exciting feeling I can imagine having during a movie. That open-endedness, that powerful, driving uncertainty finally brings us to an ending that’s ultimately sweet and hopeful, and a final line that couldn’t fit any better.

Again, this is a movie that struck me on a very personal level, which makes it difficult to say if I would recommend it to just anybody – I can’t honestly tell you if you would have the same visceral reaction that I did. But I can tell you that it’s well-written, well-acted, very emotional, and different from all the other cookie cutter movie romances in ways that satisfied me greatly.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)

ParanormanDirectors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland

Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.

As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.

From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.

That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)

The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.

Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.

The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.

The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.

In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.

Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.

Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

2 in 1 Showcase At the Movies Episode 34: Double Feature! Django Unchained/Les Miserables

In addition to the many, many other projects on my plate, friends, I also co-host a weekly podcast about comic books and pop culture. We also have periodic “at the movies” mini-episodes, where myself and my co-hosts talk about a recent film we’ve seen. In this episode, my fiance Erin and I discuss a double feature of Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the musical Les Miserables.

2 in 1 Showcase at the Movies Episode 34: Double Feature! Django Unchained/Les Miserables

Rating My 2012 in Movies

The old year has ended, friends, and as usual, I didn’t see as many new films as I would have hoped. But I did see several, and by way of discussion, I’d like to share that list with you. These are the movies from 2012 that I saw, ranked in order of preference. TV movies and Direct-To-DVD features are included. (NOTE: Order of PREFERENCE, not an objective measure of QUALITY. I may recognize, for instance, that Citizen Kane is a BETTER Orson Welles film than, say, The Muppet Movie, but I’d rather watch Kermit the Frog and company every time.

So, from my favorite 2012 film to the least:

1. The Dark Knight Rises
2. The Avengers
3. The Cabin in the Woods
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
5. Skyfall
6. Les Miserables
7. Django Unchained
8. Brave
9. The Hunger Games
10. Chronicle
11. Superman Vs. The Elite
12. Justice League: Doom
13. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
14. The Amazing Spider-Man
15. The Expendables 2
16. John Carter
17. Looper
18. Men in Black 3
19. Act of Valor
20. Prometheus
21. Red Tails
22. The Lorax
23. A Christmas Story 2
24. Finding Mrs. Claus
25. Silent House
26. Total Recall
27. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
28. Project X
29. The Woman in Black
30. Rock of Ages

Clearly, there are several films I wanted to see that I haven’t yet. Notable absences include Lincoln, Wreck-It-Ralph, Argo, and Life of Pi.

Gut Reaction: Django Unchained

Welcome to the first of my Gut Reaction reports, guys. This will be my blanket term for when I give my thoughts about a film fairly soon after watching it – hopefully the same day, if not within the first few days. As such, these may not be quite as deep or complex as the regular Reel to Reel episodes, but it will also make for a way to record early thoughts and early reactions to a movie, which I’ve learned are not necessarily always the same as the opinion I ultimately settle on after having time to think it over and allow my thoughts to collect. Also, since I will often write about movies that I’ve seen in theaters, don’t expect a detailed synopsis. I can’t really write a beat-for-beat report the way I do for my other projects, people tend to get irritated at that guy typing on his laptop in a darkened theater. That said, you should expect spoilers in these pieces, since the goal is the same – to examine the ideas and tropes that make up fiction.

My first Gut Reaction report will be my thoughts on director Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Django Unchained. So again, warning, if you don’t want spoilers you should stop reading now.

Django UnchainedDJANGO UNCHAINED

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, Quentin Tarantino

Thoughts: Considering his well-documented preferences and sensibilities, it’s kind of surprising that it’s taken Quentin Tarantino this long to try his hand at a western. We’ve gotten lots of crime and revenge thrillers from him, we got his World War II epic (I still consider Inglourious Basterds to be his masterpiece), we’ve gotten Blaxploitation and, even though he didn’t direct it himself, we even got a vampire film out of him in From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. It took him nearly 20 years to attempt a western. Fortunately, it was worth the wait.

In Django Unchained we follow a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (the amazingly good Christoph Waltz), who rescues a slave named Django (Jaime Foxx) because he can help him identify the three brothers he has been hired to track down, dead or alive. Along the way he begins to feel a sense of responsibility and friendship for Django, ultimately promising to help him in an elaborate ruse to buy his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from her owner, the cruel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

This film has been pushed hard as a Jamie Foxx vehicle, as the film that’s going to garner him another Oscar, as a chance for cinema to right the wrongs of the pre-Civil War south and allow a former slave to get the sort of bloody revenge that Tarantino raised to an art form in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. I was surprised, therefore, when I watched the movie and realized that Django isn’t really the protagonist at all. Until the final act, the viewpoint and the main character arc all belong to Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz. Schultz finds Django, takes him in, finds himself changed somewhat by the relationship, and takes a rather bold anti-slavery stance to right the wrong done to Django and Hildy while at the same time trying to protect his own hide. (Waltz, incidentally, gives as great a performance as an anti-hero here as he did as the cold-blooded Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. He sincerely deserves another Oscar nomination.)

In fact, the only thing that really marks this as Django’s story instead of Schultz’s is the fact that (again, last time, SPOILER WARNING) Schultz dies in what appears to be the climactic battle. And in fact, if it actually had been the climax, it would have still been a perfectly suitable and highly satisfying motion picture… Unless you judge satisfaction by the amount of bloody retribution handed out on the screen. Which Tarantino most certainly does. The fight that kills Waltz also kills our villain, DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, plus several other men before Django surrenders himself to save Hildy. The screen cuts to black and for a moment it seems the movie is over. But then it comes back and we see a sequence of events (a slightly overlong sequence at that) showing Django on the brink of torture, being given a reprieve and sent to work in a mine, outsmarting his transporters (including Tarantino himself sporting the worst Australian accent ever heard in a motion picture) and returning to kill everyone who’s still alive in yet another bloodbath. Satisfying if that’s what you’re there for, and for most of the viewers, we were. It’s Tarantino, we expect lots of gunfights, lots of clever dialogue, and more blood per wound than is technically probably possible for the human body to expel. There’s even a bit where Django gets off a nice shot to kill one of his tormentors that sends her hurtling in a direction that completely defies the laws of physics. As ridiculous as it looked, though, it still got applause in the movie theater, because people aren’t going to a Tarantino movie for strict realism. They’re going to view into the sort of hyper-violent alternate history that it has become clear he’s created through many of his movies.

That said, I think it’s important to note that Django doesn’t really come across as a hero in any sense of the word. Sure, he has a noble cause (saving his wife), and the people he kills are pretty much all bad… but he is driven by revenge pure and simple, not by the nobler motivations of a motion picture hero. Schultz is a bit better – he’s a bounty hunter, yes, but he shows a personal disgust at the slave trade in general and Calvin Candie in particular. He almost blows his cover at one point when he tries to intercede to save the life of a slave who is about to be killed for trying to escape. And what stops him from saving that slave? Django, willing to let another man die rather than risk Candie catching on that Schultz is playing a con game on him. Django, who is forced to play the role of a black slaver (something he specifically says is the “lowest of the low”), takes to the role a little too easily, even seeming to take some twisted pleasure out of berating the slaves in Candie’s jurisdiction. Once again, it’s Schultz who objects and tries to get Django to back off… and Django refuses.

I do think Tarantino deserves full marks for not going the obvious route many filmmakers would have taken with this film of “white=bad, black=good.” Real life is far more complex and so is this movie. We’ve got the vile Calvin Candie and the pre-KKK lynch mob led by plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson in a small but very funny role), but we also have Dr. Schultz, who is so disgusted by the slaver that he takes a chance to kill Candie even when all he has to do to walk away safe is shake the man’s hand… he can’t do it. Broomhilde comes across as angelic, as near-perfect, but on the flipside we have Samuel L. Jackson’s Steven, a house slave who has very much sided with the Candie family against the rest of the people in bondage. He’s also entertaining, but also despicable. In the screening we attended, people actually were shouting for his death… but you could tell they were having a good time doing it.

Tarantino takes lot from the spaghetti westerns of his youth, but as always maintains the incredible level of violence that’s become his trademark. Django himself is thematically related to a series of other Django films from the time period – most of which were only loosely related to each other. The most unexpected influence comes from Schultz, who takes the name of Django’s wife – “Broomhilde” – as a sign. He tells Django (and by extension the audience) an abbreviated version of the Norse legend of Brunhilde and Siegfried, and from there it becomes very clear that Django Unchained is really a loose adaptation of this part of the Ring of the Nibelung, in Western drag. There’s no attempt to disguise it, and in fact, any attempt to do so would probably feel disingenuous.

It’s a good movie… a very good movie, in fact. It’s not like most westerns and it’s not really what I expected when I sat down to watch it. It very much has the distinct flavor of a Tarantino film, though, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking in the right place.