Monthly Archives: December 2012
Django Unchained, the latest film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, is a hyperviolent revenge fantasy set in the American south, two years before the start of the Civil War. Equal parts Jack Hill and Sam Peckinpah, Django is another in a long line of Tarantino’s love-letters to the rough-edged, anything-goes cinematic landscape of the 1970’s. Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeve, and a handful of jaded reviewers have begun calling out his use of genre conventions like it’s something he was ever trying to hide in the first place. What those same reviewers often fail to grasp is the skill needed to blend, refine, and refresh those ingredients time and time again. The heroes and villains of both the “blaxploitation” and western films of the 70’s were all but crushed under the weight of the genres themselves, and have blurred together into a small handful of archetypes that the general viewing public only remembers today as either “Pam Grier” or “Clint Eastwood”. Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a work populated with interesting and memorable characters, and it serves as a reminder of why Tarantino is perhaps the most consistently great director in Hollywood today.
Brevity: the soul of wit, and longtime arch-nemesis of director Peter Jackson.
Really Jackson is the ideal director to handle the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work; it would be difficult to find another director with the same attention to detail and general disregard for streamlined storytelling as Tolkien himself. This isn’t a slight against the author, I’ve read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings many, many times. But would be dishonest to say that the prose isn’t often cumbersome, and occasionally downright unwieldy. This works in novel form though, where one is free to take in the information at their desired pace. However, it’s the sort of thing that takes its toll on a theatrical audience. Tolkien was also wise enough to cut the exposition off at a certain point, and he confined many of the peripheral stories and character lineages to a set of very thorough appendices and a handful of other books pieced together for those who wish to delve deeper after the fact. Similarly, much of what was shot for the three Lord of the Rings movies was left out of the versions intended for general consumption, and later made available on DVD for the benefit of that smaller audience who were left wanting more. So what happened here? How did The Hobbit, more or less a children’s story and shorter than any one of the three books that follow, end up as an entire trilogy all its own with a very similar runtime? Since this isn’t a traditional film with a beginning, middle, and end, it’s hard to judge it on traditional criteria, so instead I’m just going to do my best to break the whole thing down and have a look at how it’s constructed.
I’m not anti-Christmas, exactly, I love the frenzied gift hunt and ensuing exchange that takes place every year. It’s the only thing that makes winter worth enduring. But when it comes to Christmas-themed entertainment I usually couldn’t be less interested. The music is awful, the movies are mostly bland and boring, and I can’t even summon up the barest hint of nostalgic love for the old stop-motion Rankin-Bass specials anymore. Even the holiday-themed horror movies have grown tired. I mean, how many times can anyone possibly enjoy the same old retread of the “a bunch of people get murdered around Christmas and sometimes the killer is dressed like Santa” routine? For many years, the only movies I will accept as part of the annual “Christmas spirit” process have been Die Hard, Home Alone, and Gremlins. End of list. Thanks to Netflix, I have been assured that it’s not this hopeless everywhere in the world, and unique Christmas entertainment does exist. At least, it does in Finland.
It’s no secret to anyone who spends more than a half hour or so in conversation with me these days that I have an interest in Alfred Hitchcock that could be accused of bordering on hero worship. Although he died the year I was born, he was probably the first director I was consciously aware of, thanks in large part to the syndication of his anthology television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I loved the series as a child, and pursued anything I could find with Hitchcock’s name on it, including countless compilations of horror and suspense stories that he lent his name to. I didn’t realize at the time of course that his presence in everything I’d seen or read was largely ceremonial, and I’m not sure it would have mattered if I did. As good as the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents typically were, his bookends on each were my main reason for watching, combining the macabre with a dry sense of humor in a way that made a huge impact on child me. So when I saw my first actual Hitchcock film not long after all this, I felt an immediate connection as I watched. This was the first time I really had a face, a voice, and a personality to connect with the actual construction of a movie, and that was that. I was hooked. The film in question was, appropriately enough, Psycho; the making of which is the subject of the new biopic Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch himself.
When it comes to a country laying claim on film genres, America typically gets credit for the gangster category. Our obsession with the hitman for hire goes back to the bounty hunters of classic Westerns and carries on up through the work of Scorsese, Tarantino, and beyond. In the 30’s and 40’s, entire studios were carried on the back of the gangster genre. With all due credit to Hollywood for establishing a successful formula, they haven’t exactly been the ones to test its limits. That honor goes almost exclusively to foreign directors, and in this case Seijun Suzuki, director of 1967’s masterpiece of the hitman drama, Branded to Kill. It’s a film so brilliant that, after submitting it to the studio, Suzuki was blacklisted for ten years.