Django Unchained (2012): Long Spaghetti Western Love Letter

Poster of Django Unchained

I had to wait a long time to see this film, I was going to rent it on blu-ray and then I happened to see a non-blu-ray version for sale for a tenner and I grabbed it.

From the first frame of the film, it looked like a 1960’s opening for Sergio Leone-ish type spaghetti western, the colours were spot on and the rocks in the foreground could have been transplanted from those locations in Spain and Italy where the original features were made. The consistency of the film even looked the same, hard to describe, but it looked right.

Of course this wasn’t maintained throughout the film and there was no need. Once the music started up for the first scene after the “freeing” of Django, Tarantino told us with his initial score piece what was going to go on.

The first bit of music was a re-mix of the Two Mules for Sister Sara main theme. For those who haven’t seen the 1970 film, in a nutshell, it was an Italian spaghetti western film that wasn’t. The music was done by the master of off-beat magical themes and scores himself, Ennio Morricone. The film was directed by Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the original man with no name ,played Hogan. The film itself was a sort of homage to the genre that gave Eastwood the huge boost he needed to start his career in the right direction, away from television.

poster

The very second I heard the “jackass” toot-tweet of the music and listened to the subtle changes to the original music, I knew that Tarantino was making his intentions clear about the film. The choice and the remix was telling us, “This is a spaghetti western that isn’t. It isn’t even really going to follow the formula too much as I am going to mix up Siegel and Leone and Django.”

And that is what he did.

I even detected bits from Blazing Saddles (and Quentin, if I’m wrong buddy, I’m obviously giving you too damned much credit) in the amusing scene about the eye holes and the head bags. There were a few other nods and winks but I’ll get off this particular train right now.

Anyone who has ever watched the amount of these pasta opuses that were so popular at the Drive-in’s of the time, can remember the sounds of the guns in the films. The other obvious clue that the director gave us was the complete and total lack of the spaghetti western gunshot.

Quentin’s Django Unchained gun fire merely sounded loud. Gone was the ever present whine of the shot bullet and the almost flat, but very loud, crack of the guns. But the important part of the Italian western was that whine. He was telling us again, that yes this is a long love letter to the genre, but I’m not going to copy it 100%.

The casting of the film was phenomenal and I’m not going to go into the discussion too much. (Well not at all actually) Enough reviews and writers and critics have gotten there before me and I’m not in a hurry to join the din. Just as I’m not going to address the use of the “N” word. (Allcaps because of the amount of fury and un-political correctness that has been mention too damned often by too damned many.)

I will say this, though. The same people who would rather “rewrite” real history, who want to believe that in those halcyon days of yesteryear that people would not have referred to folks of a different hue using this highly offensive word at all, let alone as much as they did in the film, are the ones who want to rewrite nursery rhymes so that they do not offend.

The reality of the times, sad and disgusting, but oh so real.
The reality of the times, sad and disgusting, but oh so real.

Why? because they don’t believe in showing the truth, what is worse, is that they don’t really want to think that we were that uncouth, uncivilised, and downright nasty, truth be told.

But that sentiment is not true gentle people, not true at all. The same people in our American shores who referred to other human beings as; who called our brothers and sisters of the human race that name and other equally foul and disturbing names did do just that.

Because that was the culture back then.

These are the same people who cheerfully murdered Native Americans (and yes, that took place before the Civil War as well) and stoutly declared that the only good indian was a dead indian.

But I am not playing any “ethnic” minority game here, setting up my ancestors against yours my friend. I only point out the obvious, our American ancestors did a lot of things back then that was called, “good.” Tarantino opted to show it how it was versus the new modern trend of “gilding the lily.” Not, as claimed by most if not all the denigrators, to shock.

(Again, Quentin, if I’m giving you too much credit, I’m sorry.)

My last word on the subject, I promise, if it bothers you that much, don’t watch it.

There, all done, I told you.

Back to the film.

I loved it. I didn’t care for the soundtrack all that much, but like I said at the start, Tarantino picked music to fit “his” homage not anyone else’s. The clue was in that first piece of music, the faux Ennio Morricone that plays us into the opening of Django’s first day of freedom in a town.

I’d have to give this a full 5 out of 5 stars for the effort that went into this and for the long love letter that Quentin wrote using the film. I’d also like to give it another half star for the presence of Franco Nero who, in keeping with the 1960’s touch of the time, had that obvious moment where the “old” Django met the “new” Django.

A new classic.

Scene from Django Unchained

Sukiyaki Western DJANGO (2007): Takashi Mike & Tarantino Ride…

When Tarantino’s Django Unchained opened last December the first thing I thought of was his appearance in the 2007 film Sukiyaki Western DJANGO. This is a film that I had mixed feelings about when I first watched it so I popped it back in my laptop to revisit the film and see if my opinions had changed any. We’ll talk about those opinions a bit later, but for the minute, let’s talk about the film’s bona fides and the opening scene.

Co-written (the other writer was Masa Nakamura) and directed by the iconic Takashi Miike based on characters created by Sergio Corbucci‘s spaghetti western Django, Sukiyaki Western DJANGO is a mix of styles; a clash of homage’s; and has a sly tendency to laugh at itself. Miike has all his characters speak English with English subtitles for a sort of “camp” clarity. The film has an added bonus of Quentin Tarantino in the role of Piringo.

In the area of “homage’s” and historical references Miike throws in everything but the kitchen sink. His deference to the spaghetti western genre is very apparent with his attention to details of the original Django film: the Gatling gun in the coffin, the death of the sheriff. But his main protagonist (and to a large degree Tarantino’s character) Miike has decided to follow the lore of the Dollar’s trilogy by Sergio Leone; most notably the plot of Fistful of Dollars taken from the original Japanese jidaigeki film Yojimbo. The historical references follow the Genpei War and the War of the Roses. The film itself is set a “couple of hundred years” after the Genpei war between the Genji and the Heike clans.

Quentin Tarantino as Piringo.

In the film the clans become gangs (reminiscent of the plot of Fistful of Dollars) and the “lone” gunman who rides into their town pits both sides against the other.

The beginning of the film shows an upward angle shot of the sky and what looks (and sounds) like an eagle. To the left of the bird is a windmill water pump whose vanes seem to be gold-plated. The camera changes angles and we see a dead man lying just outside a building. The camera zooms in for a close-up of the dead man and the bullet hole in his forehead. We then see a snake slithering through a row of chicken’s eggs, the camera then zooms out for a long shot of the body, chickens moving around it. The eagle drops onto the snake and grabbing it with its talons, takes off again flying over the man in the serape sitting on a log. Just as the eagle flies over him the man fall backward off the log drawing his pistol and shooting it as he falls. We see feathers and the snake fall down to the man.

In a swift couple of movements (accompanied by the ubiquitous whoosh sound) the man catches the snake and cuts out the egg it had just eaten. Just as he liberates the blood covered egg, he realizes he is not alone. We are then treated to the first scene of Sukiyaki DJANGO and are introduced to the Japanese actors speaking English with English subtitles and Tarantino speaking English also with English subtitles. He sounds like a poor man’s Elvis impersonator right up until he relays the story of the Genpei war; he then speaks like his Japanese co-stars  and it adds to the strangeness of the opening scene.

After a long-winded recounting of the war, Quentin’s character Piringo throws the egg up into the air and dispatches the men surrounding him. He finishes off the leader with a second shot, holsters his gun and catches the egg on its return to earth. He then cracks the egg into a bowl, pulls out some chopsticks and “beats” the egg. A young woman shows up proclaiming her love for Piringo and we see him eating a bit of meat that he has dipped into the raw egg. After chewing and swallowing he leans back and sort of howls at the sky.

Only after this do we get the title screen and the opening credits begin.

I will admit that this film initially caught my interest. The incongruity of the western garbed Japanese gunmen intermixed with characters in traditional Japanese dress was a great mishmash of styles and cultures. The moment I heard the single solitary shot from Piringo’s pistol, that spaghetti western version of a gunshot, I knew that Miike was going to do his best to emulate the Leone style of making movies; from the extreme close-ups and “authentic” soundtrack the film looked to be a winner.

Despite having all his actors speak English, Miike’s plot is a bit hard to follow at times and his inclusion of so many different elements in the film tends to hurt the films cohesiveness. But the film has a brilliant cast, with the obvious exclusion of Tarantino as his acting has never been his strong point:  Masanobu Andô (Battle Royale), Kôichi Satô (Gonin), Kaori Mamoi (Geisha), are among the many experienced actors that Takashi cast in the film.


Masanobu Andô almost as scary as his character in Battle Royale.

But the film does look fantastic and the gun fights and sword fights all have been done with a panache that can be breath-taking. I enjoyed the film and although I have kept it as part of my Takashi Miike collection, I’ve not watched it too often. Mainly because of the dialogue and the (sometimes) un-necessary subtitles and because of Tarantino’s ham-fisted acting. I love Quentin’s films but only the films he directs. The only performance of Tarantino’s I loved was his Richie Gecko in From Dust till Dawn; in that film director Rodriguez kept Quentin’s dialogue short.

The film is worth a look for at least a couple of reasons: 1) because it is Miike’s first, and as far as I know his only, foray into the western genre; 2) despite having Tarantino in a speaking role, it’s not too bad.

So there you have it, a film worth seeing that is definitely better than The Happiness of the Katakuris but is not on par with Audition. Hey, it’s Takashi Miike! His films always deserve a chance even when that chance doesn’t result in a favourable review. This film is a “renter” most definitely and a “keeper” only for the most die-hard Miike fans.

Takashi Miike.

From Dusk Till Dawn: (1996) Seth and Richie Gecko

Seth and Richie

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino (who also played Richie Gecko) From Dusk Till Dawn is a Genre Bender. In other words it starts out as one kind of film and evolves into another.

At the film’s opening we see the Gecko brothers Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino) and their two hostages who are in a gas station/liquor/convenience store. After they destroy the place, the film segues into the opening credits. It is apparent that the film is about two criminals who are fleeing the police.

Later in the film the Gecko’s take the Fuller family hostage so they can use their Recreational Vehicle (RV) and them to get into Mexico. Jake Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a man of the cloth who has turned his back on his faith, Kate (Juliette Lewis) is his troubled daughter and Scott (Ernest Liu) is his adopted son.

After the entire group make good the Gecko’s escape to Mexico, they wait in a bar recommended by Carlos, The Titty Twister. Carlos (Cheech Moran) is Seth’s contact who will take him and Richie to El Rey and he has told Seth that he will meet them at dawn. Once the group are inside the club (which is in fact a strip club run by Salma Hayek where all the employees, along with Salma, are some sort of mutated vampires who feed off the clientele) everything changes.

The film is no longer about the Gecko’s escape from the law, it’s now about the two families escaping the club alive. The film, to me anyway, is beyond brilliant. It is almost the perfect ensemble of talent. Script by Tarantino, direction by Rodriguez, FX by Greg Nicotero, and George Clooney in his first starring film role. Not to mention the rest of the cast, Keitel, Lewis, Tom Savini, Michael Parks, Cheech Marin as three different characters…Well you get the idea.

But what I want to discuss today is not the overall film or the genre shift it so cleverly performs. No, I want to talk about Seth and Richard (Richie) Gecko and their dynamic.

In the opening sequence of the film we get an instant idea of who is in charge in the relationship. Seth is the mouthpiece, the leader and the thinker. Richie is the follower, he is also odd.

When Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) comes in to get some Jack Daniels and to use the toilet, he stands and talks to the store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) before he saunters off to the restroom. Seth comes up and accuses Pete of not listening to his instructions for Pete to “get rid of the cop” and Pete explains that he is doing that.

Seth and Richie reminding Pete the clerk to lose the cop.

During this exchange Richie whispers to Seth that Pete is making signs at the cop.

*SPOILER ALERT — FROM HERE ON THERE WILL BE THE OCCASIONAL SPOILER — SPOILER ALERT*

As McGraw exits the toilet and goes to pay for his booze, Richie comes up behind him and shoots him point blank in the back of the head. For the first time since we’ve entered the store, Richie speaks out loud. He tells an angry Seth that Pete had been mouthing the words “Help me” to the Ranger.

Pete becomes apoplectic and denies this. He accuses Richie of lying. In the resulting firefight between Pete and the Gecko’s Richie is shot through the hand. Afterwards Richie has a hole through his hand and he seems detached from the whole incident.

We learn through television news flashes that Seth is a professional thief and that Richie is a psychopathic rapist/murderer. Seth himself does not seem aware of the fact that Richie is psychotic until he leaves him in charge of their hostage, bank teller Gloria Hill.

Before Seth goes to get food and to scope out their surroundings, he tells Gloria that as long as she doesn’t cause any problems and does as he says she will come out of her ordeal alive. We the audience never doubt his sincerity. He then leaves and Richie goes into the bedroom where Gloria is and asks if she wants to watch television.

Seth returns with some Big Kahuna burgers (a trademark of Tarantino’s) and information on what is going on in the area. He gives Richie his burger and takes two more burgers out of the fast food bag. He looks at the third burger in surprise and then remembers the hostage in the bedroom with the door closed.

He says to Richie, “Where’s the woman?” Richie gestures toward the bedroom, “She’s in there.” Seth goes to the bedroom door and opens it. His reaction to what he is seeing is beyond a doubt one of the most masterful moments of the film.

As Seth takes in the carnage in front of him on the bed, he starts a nervous tic of jerking his head ever so slightly, like he is starting to crack a stiff neck muscle. He also starts to slowly blink. Interwoven into Seth’s reaction are almost nanosecond flashes of the scene he is viewing. Blood, flesh, twisted gore filled bedsheets all flit past our eyes as we share the horror with Seth.

It is a turning point in the film for the two brothers. Seth suddenly realises that his beloved brother is a monster. The professional in him reacts angrily. He confronts Richie and loudly berates him for what has happened. Richies says that she tried to escape and she became threatening. Seth reacts angrily and says, “That lady would not have said shit if she had a mouthful.”

He starts banging Richies head against the motel room wall and Richie, disheveled with his glasses falling off his face, starts crying. Seth pulls himself together and then starts to calm Richie telling him that when they reach El Rey everything will be better and that he’ll get help for Richie.

Just a quick note on El Rey. In the “making of” features on the DVD both Tarantino and Rodriguez talk about El Rey. Wikipedia says this about El Rey:

El Rey is a fictional Mexican village that acts as sanctuary for expatriate American fugitives, first used by author Jim Thompson in his 1959 pulp novel, The Getaway, and again referenced in the 1996 Robert Rodriguez film, From Dusk till Dawn. In both stories, El Rey possesses a near-mythic reputation and represents the protagonists’ ultimate objective. But in truth, it’s a hellish community where inflation runs free and all new arrivals are enslaved and ultimately executed when they can no longer work.

On the DVD commentary, writer Quentin Tarantino reveals that the city is in fact hell.

The next time we see Richie he has asked Jacob Fuller if he can borrow their ice bucket. When Jacob agrees, Seth comes in and tells Jacob and his son that they are going to be their hostages. Daughter Kate returns from the pool in a bikini and Seth immediately takes full control. He now knows that Richie cannot be trusted around women.

Richie getting in the mood.

This fact is rammed home when Richie has a conversation with Kate and she asks him if he will, “Lick my pussy.” When Richie starts to reply Seth snaps him out of his mental reverie and we realise that the conversation never really took place, except in Richie’s mind. It is another scene that shows just how scarily “out-there” Richie is.

Later when the Fuller family and the Gecko’s are in the RV, Richie. Kate and Scott are in the back. Richie leans forward and tells Kate that, “What you asked about in the hotel? I’d be glad to help you with that.” Kate clearly has no idea of what Richie is talking about and her face shows her confusion and her realisation that Richie isn’t the full ticket.

If we needed any more indications of just how uncontrollable Richie is, we find out when the group and their RV is stopped at the Mexican border. Just before a border guard comes into the RV to search it Seth takes Richie and Kate and they cram into the RV’s tiny bathroom. Richie takes offence at something Seth says and starts to throw a tantrum. Just as he starts raising his voice, Seth clocks him with his elbow and knocks him out cold. Kate looks at Seth and says thank you.

These scenes and the interaction of the two characters spells out for the viewer exactly who the Gecko’s are and what their relationship is. Seth, despite the fact that he cannot understand Richie and his revulsion at what Richie does, loves his brother and tries to “save” him.

The entire film is just brilliant and perfect marriage of cast and crew and script. A lot of film references are in the movie, mostly of horror films and icons. But in closing the best film reference is the duo of the Gecko’s. That they were inspired by the Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) in The Wild Bunch is beyond doubt.

If you don’t think so, just watch the start of the movie again and listen to Seth’s dialogue when he is warning Pete the store clerk.

Django Unchained – A Western Tarantino Style

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I got quite  excited when I heard that Quentin Tarantino had written and directed a new film. I got even more excited when I found out it was going to be a western (my favourite type of film). Add to the mix that it is a ‘homage’ to the spaghetti western and its multiple Django films and I was in heaven. But the real icing on the cake is that Tarantino will be working with Samuel L. Jackson again.

Samuel L. Jackson at the San Diego ComicCon 2008

He’s also got a few other actors who have worn  spurs before. Leonardo DiCaprio (Lonesome Dove), Franco Nero (just insert the Django title of your choice) and of course the stalwart of  western bad men Bruce Dern. It is interesting to note that he is using Don Johnson, perhaps Don is hoping that Tarantino will revitalize his career. John Travolta‘s sagging career was given a booster shot when he did Pulp Fiction, so I guess Don has nothing to lose.

He also has his “childhood hero” Tom Savini and Christopher Waltz, who is becoming a Tarantino regular. Of course the real surprise is his casting of Jamie Foxx as Django. Not because he is black, but because his build is nothing like Franco Nero’s. Nero pretty much built a career out of playing Django and I would have thought that Quentin would have tried to match him at least in build.

I do think that Jamie Foxx will bring a lot to the role. He is a damn fine actor and I believe this will be his first western. Looking at the story line on IMDb, it looks like the story will feature the ubiquitous bounty hunter that most spaghetti westerns are built around.

Foxx promoting Stealth in July 2005

I’m also keen to see if Tarantino will use a dubbing system that will emulate the sound of a Spaghetti Western a la Mickey Knox. And of course I am expecting all the guns to sound like howitzer cannon with screaming ricochets. Tarantino is a film fan first and foremost. He loves a range of genre films and has always, where ever possible, paid several homages to his love of the Spaghetti Western.

So even though we are not scheduled to see this film until January 2013, I’ll saddle up and ride down to the local cinema to give it a look see. Yee Haw!