Tagged Don Johnson

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained: Slavesploitation

Django Unchained. 2012. Directed & Written by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, James Remar, David Steen, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Jonah Hill, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, and Tom Savini.
The Weinstein Company/Columbia Pictures.
Rated 18A. 165 minutes.
Drama/Western

★★★★★
POSTERRecently I saw The Hateful Eight. Taking a step back in time, in that same universe, I went back to Quentin Tarantino’s brutally honest, raw Western (or “Southern” as he likes to call it), Django Unchained. Sometimes I actually forget how good Tarantino is. To me, he’ll always be a truly great director. A master, in fact. My favourite film of his is still, and always will be, the adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch that Tarantino did, Jackie Brown.
But I do believe Django Unchained is one of his most impressive works out of the entire filmography. Let’s face it – there are rarely as interesting, influential and weird writers as Quentin out there. He brings that to the world of slavery and America in its former days, its worse days.
Editing by Fred Raskin, cinematography from D.P. Robert Richardson, practical effects courtesy of KNB wizards Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (fucking legends), plus a load of other talented people, it all compounds to make Django Unchained into a great Western/Southern for the modern day confronting America’s historical race issues, specifically slavery, topped with the usual wit and style of Quentin Tarantino.
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Down around Texas in 1858, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is being transported, along with a bunch of others like himself. Soon enough, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows up. He offers to buy Django, but things end up going bad. Schultz murders the men carrying the slaves, and then takes Django with him; now a free man.
With Django riding side by side with Schultz, they set out to find the Brittle brothers – whom the doctor seeks, being a bounty hunter and all. This is how Django purchases his freedom, tagging along to help track and kill a few wanted men. Perfect for the newly freed slave. He’ll have his revenge. Better yet, Schultz agrees to help Django track down and free his wife: Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Only problem is she belongs to the notorious slave owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the Candyland Plantation. Encountering various wild and nefarious characters, Django and Schultz work their way towards Candie with death, madness and terrifying racism always nipping at their heels in an American Southern Hell.
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One thing I love about this film is the fact it boasts an incredible amount of characters. Better yet, they’re Tarantino characters. Now, for those who do not like his style, or his characters, whatever – then they’re probably not for you in general. But I dig the way he gives us characters, often not diving too deep into their backstory – especially depending on if they’re big or small characters – which sort of intrigues me. Here, it’s not simply an ensemble cast, there really is almost an entire Southern U.S. filled with characters in Django Unchained. From Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and his nasty group of pre-Klu Klux Klan bagheads, to James Remar’s awesome Western-homage double character Ace Speck/Butch Pooch, to M.C Gainey as Bible thumping hypocrite Big John Brittle and Bruce Dern as Old Man Carrucan, to a Franco Nero cameo and a tiny appearance by Walton Goggins. So many different characters occupy the space of Django Unchained. And I know that all of Tarantino’s films are ensembles, there are often a bunch of characters. It feels to me, though, this one takes the cake. It doesn’t introduce too many either, not in the sense that too many are there to be touched on. Even Jonah Hill gets in a cameo with the bagheaded mob led by Big Daddy.
Best of all are the main cast. Foxx gives Django a ton of charisma, the likes of which no other actor could’ve given him. Hands down. Sure, maybe he wasn’t Tarantino’s first choice on the list. But he makes this film what it is, without him it doesn’t matter how well Walt dances over the wonderful screenplay. There’d be no movie without Django the character, and Foxx makes it worth every last second. From the first to the last, he gives it his all. Then alongside him, Waltz impressively characterizes an odd yet charming man in Schultz – both a bounty hunter and a gentleman, a liar and a straight shooter (in more than one sense of the term). No doubt he deserve his Academy Award. He also brings to life the other half of the film. Perhaps others could have played Schultz, though, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone whose abilities rise to the level of capability required to sell this character; Waltz has a hokey-ness about him that isn’t cheesy, it works so well, it makes Schultz who he needs to be, the perfect counterpart to Django.
I can’t not mention DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and Stephen, played by the ever fabulous Samuel L. Jackson. They both give terrific performances in two very tough roles. Again, as I said recently while reviewing The Hateful Eight, as a white man I’ll never understand how it feels watching a film about race, especially slavery, and even more so considering this one is laced with the word “nigger”. Sadly, this is historically accurate, as the mid-1800’s were a viciously racist time in many parts of America. Candie is a savage representation of the young men who were brought up on plantations, raised into the family business of their fathers, the type of person who molds himself into the best possible version of a terrible person. DiCaprio performs this despicable man in the most terrific way possible, giving his all in a role that couldn’t have been easy. Likewise, though Jackson pulls off a magnificent performance it’s a sad character – Stephen has been bent and broken by white men, turned into a true slave, less free than any of the ones in shackles even while he roams free himself. It’s a wildly entertaining role, albeit tough to watch. Can’t imagine Jackson relished playing him, but in a way it had to be exciting, bringing to life an awful piece of history.
All these people together? How can you not find the cast beyond amazing?

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The conversation about Django Unchained is never complete without talking about aesthetics, from sound to cinematography to set design to effects. I won’t bore you too long. Although, certain names need mentioning.
In particular, there’s editor Fred Raskin. His other work as editor includes the recent (and fantastic) Western-horror Bone TomahawkGuardians of the Galaxy and others, plus he worked in various editorial positions on films like Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, Punch-Drunk Love, Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia remake, Hard EightBoogie Nights, and much more. His editing shows greatly in this one. There are times the way scenes are cut from one to the next are very Tarantino-esque, others it’s typical Western, and some are just odd; it all works. There’s a reason Raskin and Tarantino have worked together several times now. They compliment one another. Bad editing can really kill a movie, and fortunately this one is done well.
Another Tarantino regular, cinematographer Robert Richardson, makes the look of Django Unchained so slick and beautiful. Each sequence is almost done in its own style, but always captured crisply by Richardson. His eye brings to life all the colours of the South, the costumes and the set design all look so vivid under the care of Richardson as director of photography. Many great films have been captured under this guy’s lens from work by Scorsese to Stone. This is but one of those titles.
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Full stop, a 5-star film. This is one of my favourites out of the Quentin Tarantino collection thus far, but still doesn’t top Jackie Brown for me. Either way, an amazing movie. It takes on a period of history many Americans would sooner forget. Instead, Tarantino’s whipsmart screenplay goes head-on at all the ugliness. At times it may be tough to digest. Although, the actors take each character and breathe into them a wild amount of life. Everything here is working on all cylinders, from the writing to the acting, to the wonderful aesthetics brought out by all the artists on the production. I cannot recommend this enough. To the naysayers: let them keep naysaying. This is a destined-to-be classic in the Western genre, though it takes place in the South. I’ll always love this movie. When it first came out I saw it several times in the first couple weeks. Can never get enough of Tarantino.

Cold in July: Joe R. Lansdale’s Neo-Noir Scorches Onscreen

Cold in July. 2014. Dir. Jim Mickle. Written by Nick Damici, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale.
Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Wyatt Russell, and Nick Damici.
IFC Films.
Rated R. 109 minutes.
Crime/Thriller

★★★★★
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Fatherhood and morality are the central themes in Jim Mickle’s fantastic adaptation of the Joe R. Lansdale novel Cold in July. While the plot is centered around two fathers, both in different circumstances, morality is what eventually drives them: one worries about his own morality, the other is faced with the unquestionable lack of morals in his son. Though, the two fathers face different questions of morality, their path ends up as an identical course leading them into the dark heart of man and outside the confines of the law.

If someone broke into your home, threatening not only your own life but the lives of your family, and you shot them dead, would you be content walking away no questions asked? In the aftermath of a break-in where Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) was put in just such a situation, he begins to suspect the local law lead by Ray Price (Nick Damici) are misleading him as to the identity of the man he killed. After a dangerous encounter with Russel (Sam Shepard), the dead man’s ex-con father, Richard ends up saving the man’s life from the same cops lying to them both. Determined to figure out the truth of who Richard killed and the real whereabouts of Russel’s son, both men set out on a dangerous path crossing between law enforcement and the Dixie Mafia.
cold_in_julyThe scene most perfectly done is where Jim Bob (Don Johnson) and Richard watch a videotape revealing the whereabouts of Russel’s son. It shows him involved in some very despicable, rotten behaviour. Real immoral activity. First of all, there is a real savage moment, which Mickle really does well. Despite there being an opportunity for a bit of really graphic violence, the director strays from actually showing the moment of impact; we feel it much more, I think. Instead of actually seeing the violent shot, it cuts away right before the brutality. Furthermore, while Jim Bob and Richard are watching the video, Russel is upstairs trying to muster the mental energy to actually call his son. Earlier, Jim Bob had told him to stop being such a “cranky old bastard” and just call his son, but Russel refused at the time. So while we’re expecting him to end up calling his son, and where a lesser film might just have an emotional sort of scene to further the fatherhood theme, Cold in July pulls those heartstrings a little – yet Russel does not call him. We see the moments with the videotape, simultaneously Russel is about to possibly call, and just as we imagine he will, he hangs up the phone.
I was anticipating him giving in, not realizing what was being seen on the video downstairs. However, he sees it afterwards, and I was really glad he hadn’t called, or worse actually gotten in contact with his son. I’m not sure why I’m glad, but for me it was a subversion of my expectations. Plus, there is just nice suspense in the tension built up through this scene, from the juxtaposition of the video being watched & Russel next to the phone, to the videotape itself and how unsettlingly it was paced. Great, great moment in this film.
Cold_in_July_JPEGI know a lot of people mention the film’s score, and rightfully so because there is a very retro 80’s feel about the music. It really is excellent. Not only does it serve as a throwback-style score, the ambient nature of some pieces really lend themselves to the overall atmosphere and mood of the film. There are certain movies that try to force the whole electronic score. In the end this never works. On the other hand, Cold in July already plays like something I can imagine coming out of the 1980’s. With the electronic score, this mood really comes across. Without straining too hard in the costume/set/et cetera departments, the electronic score really helps this feel like a period piece. While there’s no outright stating this film takes place in any specific decade, the novel itself was written in 1989, and I think the movie (I’ve never personally read this novel) really puts across a feel of being from that time. The score is one way to push this forward without really focusing on coming across as an actual period piece. This sort of alleviates any pressure to fully conform to the decade, but the music helps to easily plant the story in the 80’s. It doesn’t hurt Hall has an awesomely awful hairdo from that era.
cold-in-july-3Usually a film, if it’s a good one, will have at least one real good performance. I can’t really think of a movie I loved where there’s not one performance I enjoyed. That’s sort of a nonsense thing to even expect. That being said, Cold in July sports three really big and spectacular roles played amazingly by Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard.
Cold-In-July-3cropIn particular, Hall does a fantastic job here. Especially considering his recent and arguably most recognized performance as Dexter (although I always remember him best as the meek David Fisher from HBO’s Six Feet Under). A lot of people would like to typecast Hall into leading roles where he’s this very controlled, dominant type who is full of confidence. In my mind, Hall can play anything, however, he does good work with very mild-mannered individuals, such as Richard Dane here. Also, where Dexter was a certain kind of rumination on morality, albeit from a much different angle, Cold in July shows us a more realistic version of morality in that Dane is a father, a framer by trade; a regular man. Hall plays his vulnerability clearly, openly. The turning point comes in the final 15-minutes of the film when Richard is in the midst of a gunfight. Now, we see the real transformation from where he began, as a man incapable of steadily firing a gun – when he kills the intruder, he looks at the gun surprised, and even more so once discovering he shot the guy right through his eye socket. In this finale, Richard is a confident man, having discovered his own morality through disposing of, what most of would see as, human waste. Hall played this so well – there’s a look he gives, almost as if right to the camera but not, as he walks away from a freshly killed man. Perfect.

It’s hard not to mention Shepard and Johnson, as well. Shepard was phenomenal. As usual, though. I really love him, both as an actor and writer. What a great talent. There is a fantastic moment in the finale where there’s this ironic and bittersweet moment (SPOILER AHEAD) – Russel shoots his own son to prevent him from killing Richard. The irony comes from how the film started with Russel stalking Richard because he believed him to have killed his son. The bittersweet kicks in when Russel tells Freddy that he is his father. Freddy asks if he really is, and Russel replies “Far as I know” before pulling the trigger right in front of his son’s two eyes. Really great acting.
Johnson was a supporting role, though with a decent bit of screentime compared with Hall and Shepard. Regardless, he is worth every penny. There’s something about the character of Jim Bob I really loved. I think it’s because he could have been a very stereotypical Dixie-type, and he was in certain subtle senses. But the fact Johnson plays him without a hillbilly yeehaw in his voice and step, the fact he doesn’t ham it up in this way, really does the character, and the film overall, a lot of justice. Johnson is just straight up cool as Jim Bob. I don’t think there’s anyone else I’d rather see playing this role. Not to mention he is a regular bad ass when the action-packed finale of the film comes barreling at you.
cold-in-july-2This is one of my favourite crime-thrillers in recent memory. It’s also a really great neo-noir. One of the better examples for a long while. The great performances by all three of the top billed stars really helps, however, Cold in July contains more than just that, including a very moody electronic score, a tight script, and the fact Joe Lansdale’s novel served as a basis for the screenplay helps an enormous amount. He is a great storyteller. Nick Damici, who adapted the novel into a screenplay, is a screenwriter to watch; I’ve enjoyed his previous work. He and Mickle do well together. There’s also some fun, gnarly violence in the finale of Cold in July to really tickle the hounds out there. Even a few interesting, subtle moments, such as those including revisiting the initial murder; shots of Richard and his family on the couch right where the dead man was killed and the blood sprayed on the wall, and quiet little bits like those (such as the very final shot) juxtaposed with the other highly violent scenes.
Check this out as soon as possible. I can’t wait to get my hands on a Blu ray release.