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By Joe Bendel. The real question is where’s the Gatling gun? The nineteenth century machine gun certainly found its way into Sukiyaki Western Django, Takeshi Miike’s homage to Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western, Django. Considering the shtickiness of his supporting performance in Miike’s film, Quentin Tarantino has good reason to distinguish his Django pastiche from its predecessor. This he surely does, re-conceiving the gritty western as a blaxploitation revenge beatdown. Frontier justice gets a whole new look in Django Unchained, which opens Christmas Day nationwide.

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Dr. King Schultz is no ordinary dentist. The German expat has taken up the more lucrative work of bounty hunting. He also finds slavery appalling, so he has no qualms about liberating a slave to help him track down the Brittle Brothers, three of his former overseers who are now wanted by the law. That slave is Django, and when he teams up with Schultz, the Brittles do not stand a chance.

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As everyone knows from Unchained’s media campaign, Django embraces bounty hunting because he gets paid to kill white people. However, he and Schultz make good partners, even becoming friends. After a profitable winter of killing outlaws, Schultz agrees to help the freeman liberate his wife, Broomhilda, who was taught German by her homesick former owner. Unfortunately, she was recently purchased by Calvin Candie, the master of the notorious Candyland plantation. A bit of subterfuge will be required to buy Broomhilda’s freedom, but Shultz has a suitably dubious plan.

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They will masquerade as a prospective slave fight promoter and his free “Mandingo” advisor looking to buy one of Candie’s brawlers. Of course, the white racists of Candyland have trouble dealing with Django on civil terms, but the promise of Schultz’s cash keeps them temporarily in check. Unfortunately, Stephen (as in Fetchit?), the head house slave is instantly suspicious of Django and his partner.

The weird racial undercurrents detectable in Tarantino’s previous films build into a tidal wave in Unchained. On the surface, it is a scathing indictment of the antebellum era Deep South. There will be retribution of Biblical proportions, carried out in some of the best choreographed shoot-outs since John Woo’s Hard Boiled. However, before justice is served, Tarantino will thoroughly objectify African Americans, both men and women, and unleash a blizzard of racial epithets. Yet he will largely get away with it because of the film’s ostensibly politically correct sense of moral outrage.

Jamie Foxx encounters the original Django, Franco Nero.

When watching Unchained, one gets a sense Schultz and Candie represent two sides of the auteur’s persona. Schultz is the white trickster he wants to be, finding acceptance from African Americans through social conscience and hipster sensibilities. Yet, if you peeked into the dark recesses of his subconscious, one might find fantasies of the master slinking off to the slave quarters late at night.

While he looks a bit like Christopher Guest, Christoph Waltz thoroughly dominates the film as Schultz. Conveying a charismatic sense of danger, he is the only character who consistently surprises viewers, while serving as the film’s figure of tolerance. Waltz also has the perfect flair for Tarantino’s dialogue, which is razor sharp as ever. In fact, the period setting is something of a blessing, forcing him to avoid ironic pop culture references.

Jamie Foxx is appropriately flinty when going toe-to-toe with his racist antagonists, but lacks Waltz’s dynamic screen presence. Cruel but disturbingly subservient, Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is one of the most distinctive villains of the year. Yet on some level, it is oddly problematic that Unchained invites the most scorn for an African American character. Conversely, Leonardo DiCaprio and his pasted on mustache are simply ridiculous as Candie. Completely lacking gravitas or menace, he looks like he should have a surf board under his arm rather than a whip.

Tarantino delivers some spectacular mayhem and some wickedly clever lines. Still, there is a leering tone to the film that feels wrong when the bullets are not flying. Regardless, there is enough attitude and inventive bloodshed to satisfy the filmmaker’s fans, as well as a cool cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero – but the running time of one hundred sixty-some minutes is just excessive. By comparison, Corbucci’s Django unleashes just as much mayhem in nearly half the time. Recommended strictly for connoisseurs of violent exploitation films and spaghetti westerns, Django Unchained opens wide this Christmas.


Posted on December 21st, 2012 at 10:29am.

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By Joe Bendel. Italian spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci only helmed one official sequel to his classic 1966 western gundown Django, but scores of scruffy bootleg Django follow-ups were produced. In fact, they keep on coming, don’t they? None of them, including the recent homages from Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino can hold a cigarillo to Corbucci’s original Django, which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

A stone cold killer comes to town wearing Union Blue and dragging a coffin. Much mayhem ensues. Basically, that is what the film boils down to. Like A Fistful of Dollars, there is an element of Yojimbo in Django, turning the title character loose in a town embroiled in a war between Maj. Jackson’s ex-Confederate white supremacists and a band of Mexican revolutionaries (who all look more or less the same), but attitude and action are more important than plot, per se.

Temporarily Django throws in his lot with his old associate, “General” Hugo Rodriguez, but that is only because he needs a few men to stage a daring gold heist from the Mexican army depot just across the border. He also holds a mysterious grudge against Jackson, whom he saves killing for last. Along the way, he rescues a fallen woman who duly falls for Django, but he is not really at a place in his life where he is looking for a serious relationship.

Notoriously violent in its day, Corbucci’s Django does not seem so shocking at a time when the Weinsteins will release Tarantino’s pseudo-reboot on Christmas Day (regardless of the unforeseeable national tragedy). However, its body count is still impressive. Django’s action scenes are not really shootouts, they are massacres. After all, that casket holds a heck of an equalizer, courtesy of Mr. Richard Gatling.

In a career defining role, Franco Nero is all kinds of steely badness as Django. There is something deeply existential about his presence, yet he is strictly business when it counts. Eduardo Fajardo is also thoroughly despicable as Jackson, providing the anti-hero with a worthy antagonist.

Frankly, some of the details do not make a lot of sense, like the racist Klansman Jackson being buddy-buddy with the Mexican army. At times, extras literally walk into the line of Gatling gunfire, which is awfully convenient of them. Yet, the metaphorically muddy environment and gritty action more than compensate for any pedantic grousing. Plus, it is truly impossible to watch Django and not hum the iconic theme song in your head for several days afterward.

Alex Cox suggests Django’s name is indeed a reference to the great Roma jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, in a way that would be spoilerish to explain. If so, it adds another layer of cult weirdness to the film. Regardless, Django delivers enough unrepentant action to satisfy any genre fan. An essential Italian western, Corbucci’s 1966 original is the Django to see when it opens today (12/21) at Film Forum.


Posted on December 21st, 2012 at 10:29am.

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From "Chiller."

By Joe Bendel. Yorkshire is known for its green hills and savory pudding. However, the region is also rife with supernatural activity, if one can judge from a Yorkshire produced anthology series that aired in 1995. While totaling only five episodes, it built up a cult following, so this should be a happy Christmas for fans now that Chiller—the Complete Television Series has just been released on DVD by Synapse.

ITV may not have done Chiller any scheduling favors, but the show maintained a surprisingly gritty, mature vibe. Indeed, one of the striking consistencies throughout each installment is the rather grim, depressed look of the characters’ environment. In fact, a bit of urban renewal kicks off a whole mess of trouble in the initial episode, Prophecy.

Francesca Monsanto’s family diner is about to face the wrecking ball, but not before some of her drunken hipster friends convince her to hold a séance in the basement. It always creeped her out down there—with good reason. It was loads of laughs at the time, but one by one they suffer grisly accidents that were in some way foretold by the Ouija board. Stranger still, the son of her fabulously wealthy new boyfriend seems to be involved somehow. Featuring Chariots of Fire’s Nigel Havers as the well-heeled Oliver Halkin, Prophecy is one of the best of the series, cleverly blending all kinds of genre elements, including ancient evils and exorcisms. It will also be of particular interest to teen horndogs for Sophie Ward’s fleeting nude scene as Monsanto.

In contrast, Toby, the second episode, is the weakest of the short-lived series. Miscarrying after an auto accident, Louise Knight and her husband naturally move into a spooky old house with a macabre history, hoping to start over. Before long, she appears to be pregnant again, but the ultrasound says otherwise. Essentially, Toby recycles elements of Bradbury’s story “The Small Assassin” and scores of subsequent demonic baby films.

From "Chiller."

Here Comes the Mirror Man represents a return to atmospheric form for the series, capitalizing on the eeriness of the abandoned church where a young social services case is squatting with his homicidal imaginary friend, Michael. Phyllis Logan (widely recognizable from Downton Abbey and Lovejoy) stars as Anna Spalinsky, the lucky caseworker who inherits Gary Kingston’s file when her predecessor dies an untimely death.

Beginning like the standard “skeptic learns the hard way” tale, The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Ghosts develops some interesting twists and ambiguities. Richard Cramer is an Amazing Randy style writer whose books discredit paranormal humbug. Suffering a stroke after a television appearance, he naturally relocates with his family to the big, spooky Windwhistle Hall, where the former owner’s wife died in a tragic “sleep-walking” accident. Why doesn’t anyone ever want to recuperate in the city, with plenty of people around? Nevertheless, the Cramers cannot resist the low asking price, only to be terrified by a series of mysterious accidents as soon as they move in. Of course, Cramer is not going anywhere, lest he commit professional suicide.

Just as it began, Chiller ends with one of its strongest episodes. Every full moon, a serial killer preys on the children of the aptly named burg of Helsby in Number Six, perhaps inspired by the ancient druid rituals once (and maybe still) practiced in the region. Indeed, there may be both human and supernatural agencies involved. Quite engaging as a police procedural, Number Six also boasts some of the series’ most sinister moments.

Arguably, Chiller makes perfect sense for Christmas viewing.  There is a big turkey dinner at the Cramers (which becomes magically infested with maggots), a mass is held (as part of an exorcism), and kids chant nursery rhymes (derived from old Druidic rites). As a stocking stuffer for anyone who enjoys horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Hammer House of Horror, Chiller is a solid bet. Recommended for fans of British genre television, the short but complete series is now available on DVD from Synapse Films.

Posted on December 21st, 2012 at 10:28am.

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