Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained Review

Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released in 2012

Quentin Tarantino has outdone himself once again, but Django Unchained, his longest, bloodiest and angriest film yet, is not necessarily better off for it. This cartoonish Spaghetti Western/Blaxploitation epic tackles the ignominy of American slavery while retaining the wordy humor and gratuitous action typical of the auteur’s work. It makes for an entertaining two hours and 45 minutes that never bores, but Django’s identity crisis precludes it from saying really anything about its sensitive subject matter.

From the opening credits, where Django (Jamie Foxx) and a gang of whip-scarred slaves shamble through the desert, the film insists on depicting slavery in explicit and uncompromising detail. There are grainy 16mm close-ups of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), wailing as an overseer relishes in maiming her frail body with a whip. There are at least 100 historically accurate racial epithets, used more often as shorthand than as heated insults. A central plot point involves the fictional gladiator sport of “Mandingo fighting,” where two slaves fight to the death with their bare hands. White owners lock a naked slave inside a steel “hotbox” and feed another to rabid dogs. This is Tarantino’s first film with scenes I found tough to watch.

It is worth noting that the brutality above occurs mostly off-screen, while the abundant shootouts focus on every spurt, mist and trickle of viscous blood, often in slow-motion. Even in the underexposed first scene, when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) guns down Django’s owners in the dead of the night, Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (HugoJFK) backlight the murders to make the bloodshed startlingly visible yet comically abstract. A shot of an overseer’s blood splattering over cotton buds is even quite pretty, not to mention a shameless metaphor. There’s a clear divide between the violence against slaves and everyone else — as a rule of thumb, the more blood a character loses on screen, the less you should care about him or her.  It’s welcome, if not really brave or original, to elevate slaves above their owners — this is a Blaxploitation pastiche, after all — but by trivializing one current of violence and coarsening the other, Django props up America’s darkest chapter of history as justification for an ultraviolent and by-the-numbers revenge plot.

Tarantino lays the groundwork for a mature meditation on violence, which most would agree he’s about due for. Before saving Broomhilda from “Candyland,” a vast plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Django and Schultz raise money as morally questionable bounty hunters. Though the bounties always advise “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the two take no chances and only turn in corpses. The sudden introduction to this practice makes for a bit of classic Tarantino dialogue, as Schultz cites little-known laws to talk a lynch mob into paying him $200. Later, there’s a haunting moment when Django snipes an outlaw from atop a cliff-face and we see and hear a panicked little boy run to his dead father’s side. But as the film jumps to the “rescue” second act and especially the final “revenge” act, this ambiguity disappears and the sides revert to unimaginative stereotypes. For all the sick fun Tarantino is having with us, it is disappointing that the trade-off is of any meaningful insight into the fertile, if problematic, backdrop of slavery.

Harsh as I may sound, Django Unchained is indeed a lot of sick fun. Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson have jumped to the front of the Oscar race thanks to Tarantino’s juicy lines and monologues. DiCaprio’s speech about phrenology and the “subservience” of the “Negro brain” ranks up there with the Superman suit soliloquy in Kill Bill, and Jackson as Calvin’s parroting, conniving Uncle Tom inspires perhaps the film’s most grounded discussion on race. There are peculiar yet wise casting choices, like Jonah Hill as a bumbling white supremacist, Miami Vice’s Don Johnson as a plantation owner and Dexter’s James Remar, who for some reason plays two different characters. With his thirst for violence and limited psychological insight into his character, Django is the weakest of the bunch, with as much depth and charm as a generic video game anti-hero. His painfully passive wife fares no better; Washington admitted to IndieWire how she “barely survived” shooting the film, a believable toll considering every scene asks her to scream, shudder and surrender all agency. Once the film hits its second or third ending and the far more interesting characters have met their fate, the film reminds you that it’s all a love story, after all. The romance is as enchanting as … again, a video game comes to mind.

Django Unchained is a hell of a movie, for better or worse. As a long-time admirer of Tarantino’s oeuvre, I am content that this film merely exists and further pleased that it’s a seething and energetic marathon of cinema. But Tarantino’s maximalist approach here reveals his weaknesses, as his dedication to being a bloody, composite filmmaker flattens the nuances required for great filmmaking. Sure, there are nuances and flourishes here and there — nothing screams “final cut privilege” like multiple extreme close-ups of Schultz pouring Django his first beer. Yet somewhere a broader artistic statement is lost, which is almost fatal for a film with a subject that requires some tact. Whereas Inglourious Basterds wisely shied away from the heavier horrors of the Holocaust and instead stuck to full-out satire, Django Unchained accosts slavery in all its squalor and offers no better endgame than a “kill them all” revenge fantasy. It is awkward to come away from a film about slavery and think how the director needs to grow up.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dancer in the Dark Review

Dancer in the Dark
Directed by Lars von Trier
Released in 2000

There is a moment in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark when the sadness becomes just too much to bear. It is not one particular scene; there are a good half dozen that push the infirm Selma (Björk) into unwinnable scenarios, each worse than the one preceding. Different viewers will reach different moments and break in different ways. Some will sob, in full faith of the film’s melodrama, while others will fume and swear and call the whole thing trash. For me, director and writer von Trier pushed too far about 15 minutes from the end, when he crossed some unacknowledged threshold of mine where tragedy twists into sadism and emotion into forgery. I was fully aware the flickering frames were nothing more than an artificial creation aimed at extorting maximum misery from its viewer. Up to that point, however, Dancer in the Dark balanced its pain with its pathos and caught me under its experimental spell.

This 2000 film is set in Washington State in 1964, though von Trier does not take great lengths to transform his native Denmark and Sweden into an American period setting. With digital video cinematography, the aesthetic looks rather timeless, in a grainy, neorealist kind of way. Selma’s primary struggle —coping with illness in poverty — is timeless by itself, so she also faces more severe mid-century injustices, like misogyny and the Red Scare, although on little more than a cursory level. As it stands, Selma, a Czech immigrant, works a monotonous job in a metal processing factory, saving her minimal wages in a tin container for her son’s optic surgery. He suffers from the same hereditary disease that is turning her blind. Even with her magnifying glass spectacles, she can barely see a thing, yet she insists on walking home every night, shuffling between the railroad tracks that pass by her trailer home.

Selma escapes through music. The factory’s metronomic clangs or tonal hisses entrance her into song, which, in turn, propels the film into full stop musical numbers. Von Trier brightens the washed-out colors and cuts furiously between dozens of cameras for the five songs, which, while confined to Selma’s mind, progress the story by reflecting on what has happened or is soon to take place. The choreography and effort put into the music’s production is as sincere as anything Gene Kelly or Stanley Donen tackled in the 1950s. Of course, von Trier adds his depraved touch, like when he reanimates a corpse for a ballad or directs his characters to frolic about death row. Von Trier’s unorthodox staging matches Björk’s alien voice, which freely climbs and falls octaves as “industrial” rhythms loop in the background. Dancer in the Dark reaches beauty when it resorts to music; considering the first song enters nearly 40 minutes in, perhaps it should have included more of it.

A multitude of familiar character actors join Björk, who swore off acting after this draining experience. David Morse (The Green Mile) plays an anemic police officer who provides Selma and her son a place to live, and Cara Seymour (American Psycho) serves as his witless wife. Peter Stormare (Fargo) once again plays a dim simpleton, here pining over Selma and seducing her with car rides after work, which she politely refuses. Swedish star Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Zeljko Ivanek (Damages) and Siobhan Fallon (Men in Black) fill in smaller roles that remain potent, especially in Fallon’s case. Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour) nails an unexpected lead as Selma’s closest confidant and mother figure, Kathy, clocking in the second-most screen time in the process. One of the cinema’s few canonical beauties, Deneuve wears minimal makeup in an unglamorous performance that relies on a lot of stricken reaction shots as she watches misfortune ruin her dear friend.

And there is plenty of misfortune. Independent cinema prides itself with probing the depths of human nature — John Cassavettes started the anti-industry with his rough domestic drama A Woman Under the Influence. So, not only is Lars von Trier excused to provoke, it’s his job. He mostly eschews shot reverse shot, instead panning back and forth or zooming in with a handheld camera as characters pour out their hearts to one another. I bought it all, including the central, agonizing scene of betrayal, perhaps because Björk seemed as shocked as her character Selma. It is after this point when, not only does the magic dissipate — that is clearly the point — but the passion devolves into artifice. There is no apparent self-referential commentary that von Trier wants to impart by calling to attention the deceit of his medium (they’re actors!), and the social backgrounds of his characters are so shallow that the Brechtian technique of gestus — “character action typical of a class” — seems an invalid excuse.

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” Selma muses, with a smile. It is von Trier’s simple-minded goal to defy that thesis. Some will be able to weep in acceptance of his vision. Some will seek to burn the man in effigy. I am thankful for much of the film’s beauty, as embodied aboard a slow-moving train during the Oscar-nominated song “I’ve Seen it All.” Dancer in the Dark sees music as a buffer from life’s ills and the common force between all mankind. It’s the hackneyed case that mankind is callous and evil that I could have done without.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

Monday, December 3, 2012


This is the third post in Film Stock, a series of reviews appreciating the greatest films of all time. Fritz Lang's 1927 epic science-fiction/populist epic Metropolis is featured today; it screened at Cornell Cinema last month and I have finally gotten around to writing about it here.

Directed by Fritz Lang
Released in 1927

Many ancient religions begin with a man living in a haze of tranquilizing purity, only for an abrupt introduction of knowledge and suffering to ignite a spiritual reawakening. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have Adam and Eve, while Buddhism owes all to Siddhartha Gautama. Fritz Lang’s 1927 proto-sci-fi classic Metropolis lifts this narrative with protagonist Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of superich industrialist, Joh (Alfred Abel). One can say that Lang tethers every plot point and image to a character or symbol from the Bible, Qur’an, Talmud or any other established religious text. With arresting dystopian art direction and a clear political thesis, Metropolis enhances its age-old tale to rise as a timeless work of art on its own.

For the famous intro, Lang keeps his camera distant as he follows nameless workers descending into the depths of an industrial labyrinth for just another day on the job. 32 years after film history commenced with Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Metropolis inverts this canonical image to communicate despair and brutal classism. The story effectively begins with Freder, who we can tell is important through a liberal use of close-ups. He wears all white as he frolics about an indoor garden — the Eden symbolism could not be more blatant. Maria (Brigitte Helm) disrupts his peace when she ushers in a group of battered, poor children to his chamber; confused and curious, Freder tracks them back to their subterranean dwellings. There, he watches in horror as an intricate, mechanical complex explodes and transforms into a sacrificial altar where the survivors are herded to die. Whether or not the satanic visions are hallucinations or not does not matter, as Freder faces life-changing truths, deciding to defy his father and fight against extreme capitalist injustice.

Freder’s struggle rages both internally and externally, which allows for close-up decisions and long shot battle scenes. Psychoanalysts revere Metropolis for good reason. Freder must come to terms with his father’s cruelty and considers rebelling against class inequality as atonement for his many years of enjoyment at the expense of the proletariats. After changing clothes to match their black uniforms, Freder relieves a struggling man of his seemingly meaningless task — furiously adjusting the hands of an enormous clock — and substitutes with his own labor. His failure to keep up speaks to the futile and painful work so many “unskilled” hands must persevere through every day. The scene ends with Freder’s arms stretched across the clock like Jesus Christ. In Metropolis, religious metaphors overlap with political, social and technological commentary, and characters serve both micro and macro functions, as signs of human agony and symbols for class disparities.

The subtext in Metropolis relies on montage editing, for sure, but it’s the mise-en-scene envisioned by Lang and production designers Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht that captures the audience’s attention with beauty and meaning. Like Chaplin’s Modern Times (produced nearly a decade later), boss Joh occupies an ornate office far too large for his needs — he is above mere “needs,” clearly. Cinematographer Karl Freund contemplates the cityscape throughout the picture, with emphasis on the central skyscraper, modeled after Brueghel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel. Maria captivates a crowd of laborers with the Biblical story of the Tower, which Lang stages through a very theatrical flashback. Placing his camera before a stage with the proscenium in view, Lang exaggerates the artificiality of this story to, in turn, make the present storyline only that more authentic.

The Alloy Orchestra, prolific silent film composers, accompanied the packed screening I attended at Cornell Cinema. In addition to pounding percussion, legato accordion and spooky keyboard, Ken Winokur and co. added diegetic sound effects, like striking a violin bow to indicate a creaky door or gear. The trio powered through the two and a half hour runtime not only with flawless accuracy but also with consistent energy, giving its all at minute 74 as well as minutes one and 148. Like the Alloy’s rich soundscape, Metropolis offers semiotic depth as deep as the dystopian city it depicts, but there lies the tempting alternative to just surrender to the spectacle.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cornell Daily Sun's Best of 2012

The following lists were assembled from the votes of the Arts Staff of The Cornell Daily Sun. My tenure as Arts & Entertainment Editor has effectively come to an end, so I would like to feature the work of my colleagues (via links, of course) on my blog. While I may disagree with the placement of this album or that movie, these lists feature some very economical, sharp writing, and I encourage you to read each of them. At the end is a video that former Arts Editors Peter Jacobs '13, James Rainis '14 and I threw together, where we discuss (in not so serious fashion) the more popular songs of the year that may not have made the critical cut.

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 TV Shows of 2012

Reading for ... Fun?: Eight 2012 Books You Shouldn't Miss

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 Songs of 2012

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 Albums of 2012

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 Movies of 2012