03. Django Unchained (2012)
Runtime: 2 hr. 45 min.
Pitch: Django, a soulful, soft-spoken, and married slave is freed by a congenial, mysterious German bounty hunter and former dentist named King Schultz. Together, Django and Schultz form an uncommon friendship and embark on a cross-country tour of motivated mayhem, offing hillbilly slavers in giddy ways, while trying to find Django’s wife, Broomhilda.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, and Walton Goggins
T Gonna T: Is there a more Tarantino moment in Django than when the scorned gunman and hero of the film pulls pistols and takes out an entire house of Southern slavers in slow, luxurious motion, while a mix of 2Pac and James Brown play in the background? Spoilers, probably? NSFW, too?
The Revival: Mr. Miami Vice, himself, Don Johnson. And he’s got one of the funniest lines in the movie. “Damn. I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing!”
The Master Himself: Quentin’s Australian accent is less than Oz-some. Yet his cameo is totally worth it for this spoiler:
Candy to Tooth: When Django Unchained showed up on Christmas 2012, the movie was a nice, fat hit for QT, and leading up into awards season, DiCaprio, Oscar’s favorite flirt, was getting all the hype for his portrait as the yellow-toothed, hatefully bored boy prince Calvin Candy. He broke his hand on a glass for the film; that’s actorly stuff by way of Brando right there. However, when the film came out, a curious twist happened in the Oscar race. Waltz started to pull away as the odds-on favorite with audiences and voters. His Schultz, a sympathetic, racially enlightened, and moral-yet-deadly killer played like gangbusters. It was an extremely affable part. The shift in award consideration was a curious awards twist, given that DiCaprio was the showy fave, but something about Waltz’s good-guy gunman struck a chord. It was like the antithesis to his Oscar-winning Nazi nastiness in Basterds.
Ennio a No Mo? After having his music utilized several times in Tarantino films, Morricone swore off working with the filmmaker ever again after Django Unchained. The famed Italian composer was sick of Taratino working in past musical queues and mixing them into films with curious new usage. Morricone felt it was wrong to commission certain old cues from his scores for Two Mules for Sister Sara and Trinity out of context the way Tarantino typically does. Understandable. But Tarantino, maybe out of some sense of guilt, or creative new directing, got Morricone back for a fourth collaboration and a fresh new score for Hateful Eight.
Analysis: Django Unchained was a feverish romp. Seriously, is there anything more spiritually uplifting than watching one of the most embarrassing aspects of American history get shot, whipped, stabbed, hung, and turned into bloody goo for the joy of sweet, sensational revenge? Hell yeah, Django. Here’s a Western that utilizes tenets of the genre to elevate the experience into a sort of racially charged, and highly enthusiastic, catharsis. Here’s a film that was a guns-a-blazin’ good time that showed Tarantino in full-blooded form, and it net the impresario two Oscars (Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor), and it’s Tarantino’s biggest hit to date ($425 million worldwide). Apparently, vengeance and shooting down slavers is what folks might call “mass appeal.”
Django Unchained came as a sort of spiritual successor to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another rock-‘em, sock-‘em historical revenge fantasy fitted to a genre: the Western. However, this time the film gave audiences the low-guilt joy of watching slavers get beaten, bloodied, and butchered. All in the name of love. Tarantino traded in components from Franco Nero’s Django, Mandingo, They Call Me Trinity, Birth of a Nation, even Gone with the Wind, and the end result was outrageous awesomeness. Myopic, maybe. Not to mention, this film is basically simplified wish fulfillment. Django Unchained has the furious burden of addressing the slave trade with tact, in spite of its sensational premise and execution. Perhaps it’s reckless, but so was melting Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The point being, for all the hot-button reverie, Django Unchained still moves along with giddy pride in how it marks its targets.
02. Jackie Brown (1997)
Runtime: 2 hr. 34 min.
Pitch: Jackie Brown was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, the story of a down-and-out stewardess smuggling money for a low-level crook, a gun runner by name of Ordell Robie. However, when another one of Robie’s couriers gets busted, Robie’s operation starts to unravel thanks to the half-assed ambitions and execution of aging, arguably idiotic and self-centered criminals.
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker, and Bridget Fonda
T Gonna T: The classic Tarantino trunk shot re-appears. You know, that low-angle thing Tarantino loves to play with? However, the way the shot’s used as a prelude to a snake-like scene of double crossing is so pitch perfect and patiently Tarantino. This scene’s become the film’s calling card. That, and the line about AK-47’s…
The Revival: Tarantino got two solid talents out of the woodwork for this one. Robert Forster of Medium Cool got an Oscar nod for his work as the level-headed bail bondsman Max Cherry. And Pam Grier, Coffy herself (one of Tarantino’s all-time favorites), nabbed the lead role. Both actors parlayed their work here into solid second lives for their careers. Meanwhile, no one ever heard from Bridget Fonda ever again this. At least that’s what it feels like, no?
The Master Himself: QT appeared as the electronic voice on Jackie’s answering machine. Subtle. However, you remember QT in the teaser?
Harvey the Hard-Ass. After Pulp Fiction’s hyper success, Tarantino didn’t want to top himself. He wanted to go “underneath it,” according to a 2003 interview with Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair. Jackie Brown would become his first script adaptation. Though, according to Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, Tarantino was having some commitment issues in the mid-‘90s after he broke out, and then-head of Miramax (RIP) Harvey Weinstein was not a fan of the script’s first draft. Weinstein balked at the length, allegedly wanting Tarantino to hide it. Keep in mind, this is a very anxious Tarantino coming off an undeniable epic of indie invention in 1994. Plus, you know … “Harvey Scissor-hands.” The end result is a two-hour and 34-minute blast of a caper, which showed people that Tarantino was a mindful inventor and director, and not just an over-nighter.
Spike v. Quentin. Ah, here was the beginning of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino’s very public feud over race and Tarantino’s use of the N-bomb. Here’s some quick context: It seemed like they were both cool with each other in 1996. QT cameoed in Lee’s forgotten comedy Girl 6 as a sleazy dude and thought he was doing the filmmaker a big favor.
In ’97, when Jackie Brown came out, Lee took great exception to Tarantino’s script having something like 38 n-word uses (primarily as slang by Samuel L. Jackson’s Robie character). Lee took his grievances to Variety in a column. Tarantino was supposedly very hurt and felt like he was just using language in appropriate context for the characters he was depicting.
The rage continues.
In 2012, Spike accused Tarantino of Blacksploitation with Django Unchained.
Just last month, Tarantino called Lee a “son of a bitch” in a Brazilian newspaper.
Guys, please, bury the hatchet. You’re both great. Jackson narrated both of your films this year! Can’t you see you’re both furiously gifted, punchy directors?
Anyway, their years of beef started with this film. Or maybe it was over Girl 6…
Analysis: The ‘90s were a fine time to adapt Elmore Leonard. Between this, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty, there was a serious glut of good Leonard adaptations. There was even a great failed show based on Maximum Bob. But what distinguished Jackie Brown was the Tarantino touch on Leonard’s capers, naturally. Pitched as an homage on Blacksploitation of the ’70s, Tarantino elevated Leonard’s shifty characterizations with his verve for delicious, protracted dialogue.
As a director, Tarantino’s always made a name for himself with swift, bold moves, and Jackie Brown has all the patience and nuance of a late-period film. It even has genuine wisdom to be found against the middle-aged filthiness of its cast of lost-cause criminals and screwups. And Brown was only Tarantino’s third feature. This is a film that’s not-so-secretively about older people who let weak roles and bad ideas get in their way, and everyone’s in a sort of childlike, wannabe-a-bad-boy stasis.
Jackie Brown is about regretful hoods for life. And incidentally, the film takes on a pleading quality from Tarantino — to not get stuck in roles and to really think about what he wanted to do and say with his work. Here’s Tarantino, not as a post-Pulp geek, but a genuine filmmaker expanding his emotional scope. Jackie Brown was an underrated attempt at caper that quietly reveals itself as a groovy meditation on schemers and dreamers. It’s the lost and muted masterpiece in Tarantino’s portfolio.
01. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Runtime: 2 hr. 34 min.
Pitch: Two mob hitmen, a prize fighter, a gangster’s wife, and some low-level thieves collide over the course of four different stories, each inspired by the kind of stories you’d find in a moldy dimestore paperback.
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Walken
T Gonna T: Cue Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”, the song that turns Uma Thurman and John Travolta’s kaleidoscopic twist-off into something so much more than a Godardian musical break. The song’s jaunty twinkle serves the opposite purpose of Reservoir Dogs’ “Stuck in the Middle with You”; instead of serving as an ironic counterpoint to the onscreen action, “You Never Can Tell” gives the film a chance to let its hair down. As in Godard’s films, this musical sequence is a safe space, probably the only one in a film where everyone is (rightly) on edge at all times (howdy, Marvin!). It doesn’t hurt that Thurman based her dance moves on the Duchess from The Aristocats.
The Revival: Were it not for Pulp Fiction, John Travolta would still be making talking baby movies (all due respect to the Look Who’s Talking franchise). What Tarantino did for Travolta is essentially what he does for all the movies he rips off: remind everyone why we all used to love them so much. Tarantino is so clearly attuned to what made something work, what made it cool. Travolta’s always been a tricky actor, though. Without the right molding, his hamminess can overwhelm. But Tarantino never forgot how good Travolta was under Brian De Palma’s direction in 1981’s Blow Out, especially in that film’s gutting final scene. He wanted that Travolta. He got it, too. As Vincent Vega, Travolta is charming, graceful, and haunted, if a touch stubborn (see: “a ‘please’ would be nice”). He even got a Best Actor nomination from the Academy. He hasn’t topped it since.
The Master Himself: Tarantino plays Jimmy, an associate of Harvey Keitel’s The Wolf. As in Reservoir Dogs, he exists mainly to heavily articulate his way through another foul-mouthed monologue. He also drops the n-word a lot, which I suppose is supposed to be okay because the character has a black wife? Let’s move on.
The Tarantino Cinematic Universe: Tarantino knows what it’s like to be a fanboy, so he seems to take great delight in referencing not just other films, but his own. Several of his films incorporate the made-up brands Big Kahuna Burger, Fruit Brute, and Red Apple cigarettes. There’s also the well-documented fact that Travolta’s Vincent Vega is the brother of Michael Madsen’s Vic Vega (aka Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs). Tarantino’s Jimmy shares a last name with Reservoir Dogs’ Larry Dimmick, the same guy who talks about running jobs with a woman named Alabama, the name of Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance, which Tarantino wrote but didn’t direct.
The same actress who is yanked out of a car by Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs is shot in the leg by Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, prompting viewers to assume it’s the same unlucky lady. There’s even speculation that Samuel L. Jackson’s Kill Bill character, Rufus, is actually Pulp Fiction’s Jules, still wandering the Earth “like Caine from Kung Fu.” Is it all a little silly? Sure, but any fanboy will tell you sometimes those “what if” conversations are the most fun conversations. There’s a special place in heaven for filmmakers who give their fans so much kibble.
A Midnight Cab Ride: One of Pulp Fiction’s most curious scenes is the cab ride Butch takes with Esmarelda (Angela Jones), an exotic, primal woman who feels plucked from another film entirely. Her dreamlike countenance and talk of mortality isn’t the only indication that this scene might not exist within the film’s reality; take a closer look and you’ll notice that the background is rendered in black and white. Furthermore, Tarantino makes no effort to hide the fact that the cab isn’t even moving – you can even hear Butch’s gloves plop on the ground when he tosses them out the window. Maybe it’s another Godard homage – surrealism emerging within otherwise realistic environments – or perhaps it’s a throwback to the existential milieu of Film Noir.
Or maybe it’s Brechtian, a conscious breaking of the fourth wall that serves to disengage the audience so they’ll take a moment to consider the artist’s intent. Whatever the case, Tarantino was inspired to write the scene after seeing Jones in a short film called Curdled. In any other film, this scene would be cut immediately, but the fact that Tarantino keeps it is part of the reason he’s such a fascinating filmmaker. Movies need texture. They need moments that don’t feel like the rest. It keeps things interesting. It makes art distinctive.
Analysis: Pulp Fiction is truly the film where Tarantino indulged his every cinematic whim. The result was such a particular kind of cool, a new kind of cultural currency. This is the film that made movie nerds feel like badasses again, as every cinematic trope they grew up on was being bundled in a way that felt urgent, relevant, and, well, hip. Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino as a filmmaker in general, matters because it caused the film snob cognoscenti to re-examine their relationship to genre film. Can pulp, crime, and horror be so maligned when it can look like this?
As with Reservoir Dogs, this is a movie that hinges not on story, but on presentation. Style, vision, and voice became a commodity again. That this pastiche of decades, genres, and film styles so thoroughly infiltrated the Academy in 1994 caused a seismic shift within Hollywood. With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino opened the door to mainstream experimentation – the three-act structure can be massaged, actors can surprise, violence can be funny, and audiences can be trusted to go along with it.