Tag Archives: B+

DJANGO UNCHAINED

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B+

The titular adjective certainly applies to this wild, wooly western from Quentin Tarantino, whose work is always marked by a complete lack of restraint—a quality that easily go sour but, at its best, leads to exuberantly entertaining results. “Django Unchained” is a bit of everything—a homage to spaghetti westerns, a love story, an anti-slavery harangue, a buddy movie, a period “Sting”—but in touching so many bases it scores a home run in the end. Though extremely long and ultra-violent, it leaves you neither exhausted nor repulsed, but exhilarated.

Django (Jamie Foxx) begins the picture, of course, in chains. He’s a slave, part of a shackled group being herded across the countryside by a couple of nasty traders. Their trek is interrupted by the arrival of a wagon notable for a large tooth that bobs atop it on a spring—an advertisement for its dapper owner, the German transplant Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who questions the slaves until he determines that Django’s the one he’s searching for—Schultz’s no longer a dentist but a bounty hunter, and Django can identify the three wanted brothers he’s searching for. So he liberates the slave (as well as his similarly chained fellows) not exactly by buying them but, oddball abolitionist that he is, by dealing with their owners.

Schultz promises to give Django cash as well as freeing him if he’ll help him locate his quarries, but after seeing how zealously the ex-slave deals with the outlaws and learning Django’s unhappy history—how he and his wife, absurdly called Boomhilda von Shaft and played by Kerry Washington, were sold off separately by their cruel owner (Bruce Dern) after trying to escape—he makes him a further offer. If Django will join him in the bounty-hunting business for a season, he’ll help his partner locate and reunite with his wife.

After episodes that recount how the duo deal with a bunch of clansmen led by plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) who—in one of Tarantino’s hilarious dialogue scenes—argue about their ill-fitting hoods and show Django’s transformation into a fast-shooting man of action, the men trace Hildi, as she’s called for short, to the plantation of powerful Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a smarmy, preening racist who specializes in the brutal “sport” of mandingo fighting, in which slaves are pitted against one another in brawls to the death. Figuring that Candie would never part with Hildi—a curiosity because she can speak a smattering of German—if approached to sell her directly, Schultz comes up with a plan to bring up the possibility indirectly. He poses as an entrepreneur looking to purchase a fighter instead, with Django tagging along as his talent scout, acting even more brutally toward his fellow blacks than even their white overseers do.

For a time the ruse seems to work, but at Candyland, as Calvin’s estate is called, they come up against a more dangerous opponent—privileged old house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a cunning combination of obsequiousness and calculation who sees through the charade. That leads to a reversal of fortune for Schultz and Django that will result in a great many deaths and an orgy of revenge, all highly satisfying in a pulpy sort of way.

What makes “Django Unchained” so shockingly enjoyable is its absolute shamelessness, not only in its explosions of blood and gore and its scenes of torture and cruelty, but in its language, which shifts from Schultz’s humorously elevated diction to Candie’s casual racist cant, and includes over a hundred uses of the “N” word to boot (something that will certainly offend many viewers). And the character of Stephen, the ultimate Uncle Tom with a sadistic streak, is an astonishing creation that raises the issue of black self-loathing at a level never really encountered before. All of this makes Tarantino’s film an exploitation movie squared, which constantly pushes the envelope with the darkest of humor and excess of every sort.

It’s also expertly made, with perfectly-gauged simulacra of spaghetti western conventions (like the gaudy flashback montages that register Django’s past), rich production design by J. Michael Riva complemented by the art direction of David Klassen, Mara Schloop and Page Buckner, the set decoration of Leslie Pope and the costumes of Sharen Davis, and lustrous cinematography by Robert Richardson, which takes full advantage of the vast locations. The cast savor Tarantino’s ripe dialogue and play cheekily with the archetypes he’s fashioned for them—Foxx the black man with Eastwood-like qualities, Waltz the cannily articulate European, DiCaprio the slaveowner who can turn on a dime from hospitable to menacing, Jackson the malevolent servant who sees himself as master.

Of course, this being a Tarantino film, it can also serve as an invitation to spot all sorts of nostalgic references, not only to his beloved models (the cameo by Franco Nero, who played the original Django for Sergio Corbucci’s cult favorite) but to music cuts from earlier movies (like one by Jerry Goldsmith) and rap, as well as brief appearances by a virtual cavalcade of old timers (in addition to Dern and Johnson, guys like Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Cooper Huckabee, Lee Horsley, Robert Carradine and Michael Parks). And just for fun, you can watch for Jonah Hill, Tom Savini and Tarantino himself in sometimes not-so-brief encounters.

There will be many who think that “Django Unchained” goes too far. But the same criticism was leveled at “Inglorious Basterds.” And while this film isn’t quite that one’s equal, if you’re willing to accept its utterly over-the-top attitude you’ll find it almost absurdly enjoyable.

WEST OF MEMPHIS

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B+

If you’ve seen the “Paradise Lost” trilogy on the case, “West of Memphis” will be a must. If not, it’s even more so. The travesty of justice that the 1994 conviction of three young men in small-town Arkansas for the brutal murders of three eight-year old boys represented was first taken up cinematically by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in the initial HBO installment of their trilogy, which gave birth to a grass-roots campaign to have the case reopened and the convictions reversed. The film and its sequels are the most significant, and effective, cinematic assault on the American justice system since Errol Morris was instrumental in freeing a wrongly-convicted man from the Texas death row with “The Thin Blue Line” in 1988.

Among the supporters that Berlinger and Sinofsky’s investigations attracted to the cause of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who, along with Echols, who was released after some seventeen years awaiting execution, produced this recap of the entire case, directed by Amy Berg and co-written by her with Billy McMillan. It repeats a good deal of the content of the “Paradise Lost” series, which was completed only this year with the third and final installment, and viewers familiar with those three films will mostly find themselves reacquainting themselves with the case rather than learning new facts about it. What’s made abundantly clear is the dedication of supporters in collecting evidence that threw doubt on the convictions and the abject failure of the Arkansas courts to show any willingness to hear it.

The one major new thrust, which was certainly touched upon in “Paradise Lost 3” but considerably expanded on by Berg, is the argument that the stepfather of one of the victims might have been the actual perpetrator. Not John Mark Byers, the hot-tempered stepfather of Christopher Byers, who was identified as a suspect in “Paradise Lost” 2, but Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch. Substantial evidence is amassed here against Hobbs, not only in terms of information about his past life and holes in his alibi—matter discussed briefly by Berlinger and Sinofsky after Hobbs unwisely left himself open to questioning under oath by bringing suit against the Dixie Chicks, who were vocal supporters of the convicted men—but new data including DNA findings and indirect testimony from friends of Hobbs’s nephew that the family was aware of his guilt.

To be sure, it’s doubtful that the information assembled against Hobbs would be sufficient to convict him of the murders, and in that respect one might accuse Berg—whose presentation is, frankly, pretty aggressive—of espousing the same attitude of presumption of guilt against him that prosecutors, the media and the public took against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. But one’s sense of disquiet over that has to be mitigated by the totally unsatisfying and illogical outcome of the Arkansas legal process, which in 2011 employed a little-known provision of the law called an Alford plea, by which the three were released after agreeing to present a guilty plea while still maintaining their innocence. The arrangement effectively means that the state considers the case closed while returning to society men whom it still legally considers responsible for a heinous crime (one of whom had been sentenced to death), effectively precluding any official investigation of the person who might actually have committed the act.

In any event “West of Memphis” is primarily important for shining a spotlight on one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in recent American history, and doing so in the form of a single, comprehensive film (though a long one at 2½ hours) that some might be more willing to watch that three very long documentaries. And by including a wealth of new interviews with the accused, their families, lawyers and advocates (most notably Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who helped spearhead the effort on their behalf), the victims’ relatives, prosecutors, judges and others (including the two young men who report on what Hobbs’s nephew said), as well as offering post-prison portraits of the three released (if not officially exonerated) men, it gives some indication of the enormous human cost of the entire unhappy episode.

Still, it should never replace the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which stands beside Morris’ groundbreaking work among the milestones in activist American non-fiction filmmaking.