Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino

When a friend asked me for my most anticipated film of 2012, way back in January or so of that same year, I said it was tie between Cogan’s Trade (which turned into Killing Them Softly) and Django Unchained.

No real point to the story other than to establish that this was the film of all films for me this year.

But, just like Killing Them Softly, I didn’t get the experience I had anticipated.

Django Unchained is a lot of things. It’s a hell of a film to watch. It’s violent and exciting. It’s full of wonderful, exuberant performances. It’s gritty and running high on cinematic love. The music is perfect. It’s exploitation candy and appropriately sweet. It’s wonderfully crafted and brimming with Tarantino’s nerdy appreciation of trashy movies.

On one level it’s really quite fantastic.

But I feel 2012 was the year of slight, nagging disappointment for me and I’m afraid Django did not break the trend.

While I enjoyed watching it, I couldn’t help but feel it lacked something and that it falls short of what the wonderful Inglorious Basterds accomplished. I also worried that maybe I’m getting a little tired of this phase of Tarantino’s career and that the cinematic chameleon needs to mix it up again. It had a slight odour of “been here, done that.”

People (who, you ask? You know, just people) are calling this Tarantino’s second “revenge” film of a possible trilogy. Well, I don’t know about that. For one thing what’s he going to tackle next? Chinese railroad workers killing railroad tycoons? Indians rising up to kill British colonists? He’s talked about¬† making a film called Killer Crows about a group of African-American WW2 soldiers that rise up and kill a bunch of white soldiers, but can you see that happening?

In my opinion (not at all humble), Django completes a “revenge” trilogy that started with Death Proof. Stylistically it’s quite different, but it’s about women rising up and kicking ass against violence against women. People dismiss Death Proof as a rare failure from Tarantino, but I think it’s one of his best (due partly to my obsession with carsploitation films) and thematically fits here.

So, basically I’m saying trilogy over, let’s do something different Quentin.

It’s not that it’s a bad movie, at all. It isn’t, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, it’s what cinema needs once in a while. I already want to see it again because it thrilled the heck out of me. But I guess with Django, as opposed to Basterds, that’s all it was to me. I didn’t think it shattered expectations, it didn’t fly in the face of modern film. It didn’t strike me as “important” (groan). I’m not sorry I didn’t see it before I wrote my “best of the year” list.

Mainly it didn’t achieve those heights because Tarantino already did it, which is sort of a compliment. And there is an argument to be made that Django tackles slavery in a more honest, brutal, realistic way than a film like Lincoln, my pick for best of the year, ever could. And that’s fair. I do believe in the power of exploitation cinema to reveal the dark corners of human existence. Django did accomplish that, and rather well too. And I enjoyed watching how Tarantino walked the line of exploiting slavery for a revenge film, but only letting the audience enjoy the revenge, not the violence and sex associated with slavery. That would have been terrible.

Maybe it’s a case of having to high of expectations. I’m not sure. But for whatever reason Django Unchained was not the masterpiece I had prepared myself for. Full disclosure: I may end up loving it someday.

Django Unchained is in cinemas now.

The Paperboy

The Paperboy (2012), directed by Lee Daniels

I have to say, I like a movie like The Paperboy.

It’s lurid and strange and dripping in sweat. It’s dirty and dark. It’s a neo-noir and exploitation film all wrapped into one. It’s really quite good.

The Paperboy is about a murder investigation by a group of newspaper men, two brothers and another writer. They’re trying to clear the name of a man they believe to have been wrongfully convicted for the murder of a much-hated sheriff.

To stir the pot, in comes Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte Bless, an oversexed beauty with a thing for inmates. She’s fallen in love with the convicted (John Cusack) by mail and wants to help the boys spring him. They start to dig and things get weird.

I feel like this is the kind of movie you’re either going to really enjoy, on at least some level, or you’re really going to reject. There’s not a lot of middle ground. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I sure enjoyed the heck out of it, for the most part.

It’s not perfect. It has a middle section that gets a little lost, and the whole thing could have been tightened up. The problem is the movie has one of those plots where it starts off being about one thing and then half way through you realize it’s about something else, which is a pretty classic film noir move. But for modern audience, used to A leading to B leading to C, this can make it difficult to retain interest.

As my attention began to wane I actually gave myself a little internal pep talk to stay with it and focus on what the film wanted me to focus on, not on the murder plot that had gone sideways. And so I tried and by the end of the film I was once again pretty well wrapped up in it.

A lot of critics bashed the movie for being lurid, “sordid,” “ugly trash.”¬† I like this one: “a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe.” That was from a negative review, but that sounds pretty good to me.

Rick Groen wrote “If the wallowing were deliberate, this might have been hugely funny,” which I think really epitomizes the sentiment of people who don’t get B-movies or exploitation films. I’m not claiming to be any hardcore aficionado, but I’m into that type of movie enough that I don’t need them to be funny for me to enjoy them.

I like campy B-movies, don’t get me wrong, even modern tongue-in-cheek homages like Machete or Hobo With a Shotgun. But to think that all B-movies have to be funny is to reject a whole history of lurid, dark, dirty filmmaking intended to shock, titillate, horrify and generally push boundaries. I understand that most people would and do reject that history, but I think it’s an important function of cinema. And I can appreciate a modern homage to that tradition.

Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, when I go to the movies, I want to see some raw, rough stuff. I want to be shocked and pushed. I don’t necessarily want a movie that sugarcoats things and gives me a pleasant little viewing experience. Or even a film that just takes me to the edge of that cliff but never jumps off. Sometimes I want a sweaty, strange, stinking hot, lurid, crime-filled mess of a movie to sink my teeth into.

The Paperboy is by no means perfect or any sort of a masterpiece but I would argue that it’s a quality bit of neo-noir and a pretty unique viewing experience for this day and age. What other movie would you see John Cusack and Nicole Kidman, er, pleasure themselves together in a prison? Or Kidman, er, help out Zac Efron with a jellyfish sting? Or Matthew McConaughey, er, get cut up taking part in some nefarious liaisons, shall we say?

And it’s not just that it has lurid content that makes The Paperboy some sort of great movie, it’s that it’s all shot so well and executed (no pun intended) with great, over-the-top performances and that you can feel that Florida summer swamp heat just burning off the screen. The film is dripping with raging sexuality; it’s sweaty and unravelled, it’s messy and dangerous. And most of all, it’s compelling as hell.

If that sounds like something you could get into then I recommend The Paperboy. If it’s not then I hear Wreck-It Ralph is not bad.

The Paperboy is in theatres now.

Piranha 3DD

Piranha 3DD, directed by John Gulager

I don’t think many people get what can be so good about an exploitation movie. I stick up for them, get excited when they come out, try to push them on people. But even I’m usually disappointed by them. They rarely live up to the hype and are never as good or as shocking or as titillating as you imagine they will be.

But that’s part of the fun, I think. It’s seeing the posters, watching the trailers, amping yourself up for how off the wall this movie is going to be and how much fun the little, sick twisted part of you is going to have taking it in. For me, I usually find that the movie doesn’t push it enough, which makes me feel strong and tough, or it goes too far, which makes me feel like I have a soul that perhaps the filmmakers lack. Either way, you win.

For those who don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, an exploitation film is a movie that has an element that it can exploit in advertising to get people in the theatre. Back in the day, when censorship laws were tighter, this meant promising audiences violence, gore, nudity, sex or some other lurid sight that they had never before witnessed. You could see most of that stuff on TV nowadays probably, but eventually, as censorship slackened in the 1970s, exploitation filmmakers started pushing things.

These types of films can range from enticing audiences with promises of sex or whatever, to downright challenging them to see if they can stomach what’s about to unfold. “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie” read the now notorious tagline for the original Last House on the Left (1972). That’s really a grindhouse film (low budget, totally lurid) but even blockbusters can be exploitation movies. Jaws is a classic example. It’s an “eco-terror film.” It promises you nature wrecking havoc on humans, blood in the water.

Piranha 3DD, and its predecessor, Piranha 3D, is an eco-terror film, and pure exploitation. I mean, the title alone, come on. It promises us the thrill of watching naked women, teenage sex, bloody terror and an entire water park feasted on by flesh eating, ravenous piranha fish. Classic.

What I love about exploitation cinema, at its best, is that it gives us what we really want. It says a lot about us, not all good, that that’s what we want, but at least those films are honest about it. Sometimes we want mindless violence and sex. We might not admit it, but we do. For some that might mean watching a Hollywood action movie that has a little bit of that, and that’s fine. You don’t feel like scum afterwards. But exploitation takes that to the extreme and blatantly, openly feeds us the goods, usually having fun with it. And there’s something about that that I can respect.

Now, I’m sorry for this long intro because Piranha 3DD is not a very good exploitation film. Most of them aren’t, as I said. And it’s not nearly as good as Piranha 3D, which was a heck of a lot more fun.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nudity and violence and a hilarious cameo by David Hasselhoff. It delivers what it promises. It’s hard to explain why it fails. Mainly I felt that it doesn’t have a lot of fun with its material and also falls into that exploitation pit where it goes too far, which, again, I respect its right to do, but makes it hard to watch.

I mean, for one thing, the film is clearly sexist, in that the vast majority of it is devoted to hating and objectifying women. The title itself promises that we will be seeing large breasts in 3D (funnily enough breasts in 3D are not all that enchanting it turns out. It’s not as if they fly out of the screen or anything. They just look like breasts in real life. But I digress…). And then we spend half the movie being teased that a piranha is going to bite a woman’s vagina. This is achieved with underwater cameras and is constant.

And then of course there is the scene where when, during sex, a piranha that previously swam up a woman’s vagina bites on to the man’s penis and he eventually cuts the tip off his penis to remove the fish, with blood everywhere. Where do you even begin to analyze the symbolism of that scene?

Objectification is clearly a part of the exploitation culture and when it’s used in a fun, or even erotic way, and in a way that doesn’t feel aggressive or downright degrading to women, it is a fun part of the genre. Obviously this can go to extremes, as in I Spit on Your Grave or other rape-revenge fantasies, but when used in good bad taste (if you follow me) it works.

Piranha 3DD does not achieve this balance. None of the main female characters get naked, only the peripheral, disposable women in the film that you don’t need to know anything about. Women’s sexuality is seen as dangerous and the cause of male character’s deaths. The film asks us to route for these women to be killed. And there is very little self-aware, wink, wink, we know what we’re doing, fun to the whole affair. It left me feeling cold.

So I’ll quit rambling. What I’m trying to say is that exploitation cinema can be some of the most fun you’ll have at a theatre, if we’re honest, but that Piranha 3DD is not a good example. It’s lacking something, that slight perspective shift that could have made the whole thing either a lot more fun, or a lot more legitimately exciting. It’s lost in the middle somewhere and falls short because of it.

Piranha 3DD is in theatres now.