Django Unchained review

On Sunday, 13 January 2013, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., who recently returned from Taiwan, for a good if quick lunch at Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We then met Beruk A. at the Kendall Square Cinema to screen Django Unchained. We all enjoyed the Western flick.

Quentin Tarantino's bloody western
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx

If you like director Quentin Tarantino‘s other movies, you know what to expect: snappy dialogue, some satire, homages to multiple film genres, and over-the-top violence. There has been some controversy over the film’s depiction of slavery and shootouts, but I think it’s good that American audiences are queasy in the face of the “peculiar institution” and gunfights. The “N word” is used to both shock and remind modern audiences of the original sin of the U.S. and its pernicious justifications.

Django‘s story is simple — Dr. King Schultz, an itinerant German dentist and bounty hunter, frees slave Django, who helps him track down and kill wanted criminals in return for help finding his wife Brunhilde, so named by previous owners. It turns out that Brunhilde is being kept at the plantation of Calvin Candie, whose right-hand man Stephen is wary of Schultz and Django’s cover story as slave dealers.

As usual, Tarantino has an excellent cast to work with, including Golden Globe winner Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz, Jamie Foxx as Django, and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda. Waltz was also in Tarantino’s similar World War II vengeance fantasy Inglorious Basterds. Calvin Candie is played to slimy perfection by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson shows how some people internalize oppression as the nasty Stephen. 

Django Unchained‘s supporting actors are no less familiar, including almost unrecognizable appearances by Don Johnson, Franco Nero (the original Django), Tom Wopat, Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Johah Hill, and Zoe Bell. The director himself makes a cameo.

The cinematography and eclectic soundtrack show Taratino’s many influences, from classic and spaghetti westerns, to 1970s Blaxploitation, to postmodern westerns such as Unforgiven. The bloody battles and slayings have their roots in The Wild Bunch, and the scary hillbillies could have been in Deliverance or Pulp Fiction. Scenes mocking a lynch mob reminded me of Blazing Saddles and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (incidentally, two of my favorite movies).

Overall, I’d give Django Unchained, which is rated R for graphic violence, a B+, eight out of 10 stars, or three and a half out of five stars. It’s not for everyone, but those who like Tarantino’s oeuvre will find the movie satisfying. It did make me want to dust off RPGs Boot Hill or Sidewinder.

Cowboys & Aliens review

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig
Indy and Bond

On Sunday, 31 July 2011, Janice and I met Josh C., Thomas K.Y., and Thomas’ girlfriend Kai Yin at the Showcase Cinemas at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for Cowboys & Aliens. Jon Favreau’s western/science fiction mashup was fun, if not especially original.

Loosely based on an independent comic book, Cowboys & Aliens follows amnesiac Jake Lonergan as he finds himself caught between a small-town sheriff, an angry cattle baron, and his former band of bandits. Complicating matters is a mysterious woman who seems to know more about a manacle on his wrist than he does, a gold mine, hostile Indians, and unearthly kidnappers!

James Bond’s Daniel Craig is the laconic Lonergan, and he is supported by an all-star cast, including Keith Carradine as Sheriff Taggart, Harrison Ford as cattle baron Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, and Tron Legacy‘s Olivia Wilde as the alluring Ella Swenson. Highlander and Superman: the Animated Series‘ Clancy Brown is preacher Meacham, Moon and Iron Man 2‘s Sam Rockwell is barkeep Doc, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee‘s Adam Beach is Native American scout Nat.

These actors elevate the film from a mere shoot-’em-up to a full-blown popcorn flick (if not at the box office, where Cowboys & Aliens tied with the unnecessary Smurfs movie). I enjoyed seeing Indiana Jones face off with James Bond and the cast and crew’s obvious enjoyment in riding horseback and blowing up alien invaders.

Just as Thor substituted Norse deities for Stargate‘s Egyptian ones, so too does Cowboys & Aliens tap into District 9‘s aliens and body horror, Unforgiven‘s gritty West, and Stargate‘s sense of adventure. Like this past spring’s Rango, which combined computer-animated talking animals with western tropes, Cowboys & Aliens is an alternate-history romp that manages to avoid the steampunk excesses of Wild, Wild West or Jonah Hex, even as it draws on the same clichés.

I’d give Cowboys & Aliens, which is rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a “B+,” or 7.5 out of 10. After his successes with Iron Man, Favreau continues to inspire confidence with his choice of workmanlike direction rather than the quirky stylings of Burton, Tarantino, del Toro, or Rodriguez. That said, the extended trailer for the sword-and-sorcery Conan the Barbarian was the only preview that was memorable.

Cowboys & Aliens reminded me of my favorite sessions of Boot Hill, Tim M.B.‘s GURPS “Arth,” Castle Falkenstein, Deadlands (arguably the best fit), and my own GURPS Steampunk/D20 Etherscope: “Gaslight Grimoire.” Back in grad school, I also ran a scenario for GURPS 3e Supers: “Visor and the Seer” using GURPS Old West involving time travel.

Coming soon: More Comic-Con roundups, games, and travel!