Saturday, December 29, 2012

Movie Reviews-Django Unchained, Curse of The Golden Flower

Django Unchained
directed by Quentin Tarantino
Django Unchained is a great movie. A black man seeking  to rescue his wife is the hero. As Marv said in Sin City, this woman is worth dying for, worth killing for, worth going to hell for. Amen. Black heroes like this haven't been widely seen in American movies since the early seventies during the brief "blaxploitation" craze. For whatever reasons, and some people have written essays on this, in successful large budget movies aimed at mainstream white audiences, many black actors have often been relegated to comedic or sidekick roles. Getting the girl is usually out of the question. Heroes get the girl. Heck even if you're the hero, like Wesley Snipes in the Blade series, chances are 50/50 you won't get the girl, as Blade indeed did not. Three movies and Blade never got the girl. Weird that. Things HAVE changed of course, but not as much as I would like. I think everyone likes to see themselves reflected positively on the screen in a lead or important role. How do you do that when the historical and cultural narratives are so different? Francis Marion is a hero to some but not to me. My ideal movie about him probably wouldn't have looked like The Patriot.

Anyway, Django Unchained throws out the usual conventions about race and heroics. The hero kills many white people. Or rather I should write that he kills many slave owners and their supporters. Their whiteness is less important than their moral depravity. White people and black people die in many of Tarantino's movies. This film should be different? Django Unchained rejects the normal American slavery frame. In this film the slave owners and their minions are the bad guys. How many movies have been made where the hero is that supposedly common ex-Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and didn't believe in white supremacy? How many movies have been made where the slaves were all well fed, happy, and loyal to their white owners? How many movies have been made where slavery is kept off screen while the "true" tragedy of the (white) nation tearing itself apart or some southern belle being unable to find the the right man to accompany her to the soiree is put front and center?

Far too many.
Well Tarantino didn't make that film. His film still understates slavery's ugliness. It's not a documentary. But I don't think that in modern times, say last 20 years, there have been too many other films that show slavery's casual and essentially capricious brutality. Black people were property. Whites barely considered Blacks human. Whatever an owner wanted to do with or to his or her property was pretty much fair game. Anything that hinted at Black equality, from looking a white person in the eyes to speaking in a non-servile tone of voice, could be and was punished. Degradation was a key factor of enslavement. Slavery required violence and the constant threat of violence. The film shows some torture implements used.
Tarantino has an eye for cinematic mayhem so it's not surprising that he would make a film set during this time. I was surprised that he made one that was so darkly humorous and ultimately touching. I don't think that Tarantino does "message" films. So this is not some profound deeply moving serious film with slow reveals, silent screams and classical music that ponderously swells at just the right moment to bring audience tears. There are no long speeches aimed at the mentally slow explaining why slavery is bad. I think Tarantino considers that far too obvious to mention. There are other people who could make serious sober searing introspective films on American slavery and I hope they do just that. I'll certainly watch those movies.
In 1858, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a rebellious slave that has been sold for attempting to escape. Along with other slaves, he is being transported thru Texas by the Speck Brothers (James Remar and James Russo). An eccentric, linguistically precise and extremely polite German dentist named King Schultze (Christopf Waltz) stops to inquire if any of the slaves have seen three white overseers known as the Brittle Brothers. When Django replies in the affirmative, Waltz offers to purchase him. But the Speck Brothers don't like Schultze's easy way of speaking to black men and warn the dentist off.
But Schultze is not really a dentist. He kills one brother, incapacitates another and frees Django. The other freed slaves kill the other slave trader. Schultze is a bounty hunter with legal authority to retrieve the Brittle Brothers dead or alive. He prefers dead but he doesn't know what the Brittle Brothers look like. But Django will always remember what the Brittle Brothers look like. Django has personal history with them.
This starts a partnership that will see both men journey across America, killing criminal fugitives. Django hones his gun fighting and tracking skills and sartorial sense. But this isn't a road trip movie. Django is haunted by a quest. Django must find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (named incorrectly after the Valkyrie from the Ring Cycle). In flashback we see that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and Django were both captured trying to flee their plantation. Django was forced to watch and beg as his wife was stripped and beaten by the Brittle Brothers (whom Django has since sent to hell). Broomhilda was sold to the hellish Mississippi plantation known as Candieland. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his sister Lara Candie (Laura Cayouette) rule here. They mix sadistic brutality with a classy facade. Calvin's hobby and side business is slave fights. Black men fight to the death while white men watch and wager. There are black women around to attend to a white man's more intimate needs. This latter is implied, not shown.
Django and Schultze decide to pretend interest in the fighting game, overpay for a few fighters and then purchase Broomhilda as a seeming extra. Django's cover is of a free black man who is a slaver, a role he finds unpleasant to play. One black man who is not playing a role is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) an odious house slave whose loyalty to the Candies and hatred for all things black is exponentially greater than his minimal self-respect. He resents (as do all of the whites in the film) seeing Django ride a horse. He swiftly intuits that there is something off about Django's and Schultze's stated mission. Stephen is, as Malcolm X once joked, a black man who so thoroughly identifies with his oppressors that if the master gets a cough, Stephen will ask "What's the matter boss, we sick?" Stephen is very proud to be a slave.
There is a tremendous amount of violence in this film and some brief nudity. Obviously, racial slurs and profanity abound. This is not a film for children. Blood spurts and flows. There are a few broadly comedic killings. You really have to see the film to understand what I mean by this last statement. You kinda had to be there and I wouldn't care to spoil it for you.
This movie touches the same core American cinematic themes of stylized violence, protecting your family, standing up for yourself and getting some righteous payback that animated such movies as Shane, Death Wish, True Grit, The Brave One, Rambo, Taken, Braveheart, Death Sentence, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Sons of Katie Elder, and virtually any 80s Steven Seagal flick. The only difference in Django Unchained is that the good guy (well the main good guy anyway) is black while almost all the bad guys are white.  It is, as this blogger and this writer pointed out, unusual for American cinema. Will whites support this film? Well the initial returns suggest they will. We'll see how it looks in a week. Some racists conservatives are already sniping at people like Toure for applauding the deaths of slaveowners.  /Sarcasm on/ How dare he??? /Sarcasm off/ Obviously some people never read their Fanon. That's a pity. Everyone has the right to defend themselves, even black slaves then and black people today.
Besides explicitly pro-Nazi writers I simply can't recall too many people criticizing the deaths of Nazis in Inglorious Basterds or the depiction of Nazis as bad guys in most WW2 movies or claiming that Schindler's List was anti-German. But there are some people who are arguing that this movie is "anti-white". And THAT remains the central problem in American film and society. There is too often an inability or unwillingness by the majority to imagine itself temporarily in the minority's place, and so identify and understand every one's common humanity. If you're a minority, you must do this if you intend to enjoy more than a small sliver of artistic creations. Some Black folks loved Scarface despite no black leads and some regressive messages. Other Black people are crazy about A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings regardless of a paucity of black characters. I could love a film like 300, even though the conservative writer was rather obviously race baiting (Persians that look like West Africans???) because I could appreciate the deeper message of fighting without hope of victory because it's the right thing to do. So if I can enjoy those movies there is absolutely no reason why any white person who's not a member of Sons or Daughters of the Confederacy couldn't enjoy Django Unchained if they are normally a genre fan. If you're a white conservative watching this film and identifying with slave owners, well, that's a personal problem, friend. Get help.

Perhaps movies like Django Unchained will cause us to rethink why people like Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest are still considered revered heroes in some circles while people like Nat Turner and John Brown are considered murderers and terrorists. 
I think the film limits itself by making Django's quest so personal. Django can only rely on himself and Schultze. Django isn't leading an anti-slavery crusade. The movie plays with dynamite by interrogating exactly how whites are able to maintain black submission. It's easy to look back and say what Jews/Blacks needed to do in death camps/plantations and dismiss them as unworthy if they didn't survive or avoid enslavement. Candie does just that. Real life is different. Most people aren't heroic. They will try to stay alive. Death before dishonor is rare in reality. You don't know what you would do to survive if someone has a gun to your head (or your husband's, your wife's, your brother's, your sister's, etc) You might like to think that you'd toss off a pithy one liner, defy the bad guy(s) and go down fighting, leaving a mound of dead scumbags behind. You might. But I wouldn't bet money on it. This could be one area where a black director would have done things differently. 

There are a few familiar names here, including but not limited to Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, Walton Goggins, Franco Nero, Tom Savini and Robert Carradine. The film is just under 3 hours but never dragged. Tarantino is far too hyperactive for that. But cutting 15-20 minutes wouldn't have hurt. Visually this is a spaghetti western so it was nice that genre star Franco Nero had a role. It's paced like those old school Saturday afternoon kung-fu movies.
Should or could a black director have made this movie? Arguably one did already. John Singleton's 1997 Rosewood, about the 1923 real life racist white attack on a black Florida community, did poorly at the box office. But as the electorate has changed since 1997, perchance so has the ticket buying public. Maybe Django Unchained's success will help Danny Glover's Haitian Revolution project get greenlit. Maybe we'll see epic tales about real life black tough guys like Bass Reeves, General Maceo, or General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.  Or maybe a white director can go places a black one can't. Time will tell...

100 Black Coffins (from soundtrack)

Curse of The Golden Flower
directed by Zhang Yimou
I saw this movie because of the two leads. Chow Yun-Fat is one of the coolest actors alive while Gong Li remains one of the world's most beautiful women and a skilled actress. But even these top thespians are almost lost in the visual lushness of Curse of The Golden Flower (COGF). Make no mistake, this movie looks like American epics of the fifties and sixties before the studio system broke down and a more realistic grittier style took over. Even if you watch this without subtitles/dubbing and don't understand a word of Mandarin, this is a MUST see. I'm not kidding about this. If you're any sort of movie fan get this flick. See it. It has the majesty of every extravaganza you've ever seen or heard about. The colors literally drip off the screen. You're pulled into a majestic tapestry of the T'ang period of Chinese history. Well it's a fictionalized story set during that time. And even though it's an EPIC it still clocks in at less than two hours. Imagine that. Someone actually made a complex film full of drama, intrigue, backstabbing, and hidden love stories and did so without bloating to three or four hours.

It's hard to share much of the story with you because there are some very critical plot twists and surprises that you must not know about before watching. So this will be a very bare bones description. As I mentioned upthread we are all humans who should be able to put ourselves in each other's places from time to time. No matter where you go on this planet the dance is going to be the more or less same around power, relationships between men and women, relationships between parents and children, etc. We all have love, lust, hatred, honor and revenge and several other emotions both base and noble twirling around in our heads as Herman Cain might put it.

COGF is a story about a very dysfunctional royal family and the internal and external struggles for power and revenge. Obviously although everyone involved and depicted is Chinese, this is a universal tale that reminded me of such stories as King Lear, Ran (itself an adaptation of King Lear)Hamlet, Sundiata, A Game of Thrones, Elizabeth, Macbeth, and The Tudors.
Without giving too many spoilers the basic plot is as follows. The Chinese Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) comes home from his latest military campaign with his second son and top general, Prince Jai (Jay Chou). There is a holiday to celebrate and the Emperor intends for everyone to party and enjoy themselves, whether they want to or not. One person who doesn't want to celebrate and is not overly fond of the Emperor (the feeling is definitely mutual and that's all I can say here) is the sickly Empress (Gong Li) in a role that is equally stunning for its layers of deceit and pathos and its decolletage. The Empress has taken a lover. But whether from laziness or pure spite she hasn't looked outside the family tree. She is the Emperor's second wife. She's rolling and tumbling with the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor's heir and oldest son by his first, now deceased wife. Both Wan and the Empress have other secrets and plans they aren't sharing with each other. The Emperor's youngest son Prince Yu (Qin Junjie) probably knows more than people realize but like his mother and half-brother he keeps his own counsel. A court doctor and his daughter serve both as a Greek chorus and a way to link various subplots together.

The trailer is sort of a bait and switch. I wouldn't call this an action movie though such elements come to the forefront at the film's conclusion. If you like classic drama you must see this film. It has a good story and truly sublime visuals. If the film has a weakness it's that the visuals and set pieces are so stunning and attractive that you might overlook a few misfires in the storyline. But I didn't care. Glorious. People are both pits of vindictiveness and mountains of selflessness.

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