Film Reviews

Django Unchained & The Guilt Trip

Published January 26, 2013

A typical Quentin Tarantino film combines relentless bloodshed with a dry humour that releases the tension whenever the tide of gore starts lapping at one’s ankles. This formula has enjoyed such critical and popular success that a new Tarantino flick such as Django Unchained arrives on a tidal wave of anticipation.
Like Tim Burton, Tarantino is a connoisseur of cinematic schlock who seems to love anything that is cheap, cheesey and overheated. The pay-off is that even the dumbest expoitation films may throw up remarkable images and scenarios. Francis Bacon used to say he wanted his paintings to bypass the viewer’s intellect and go straight to the nervous system, and this is precisely what happens with a really good, bad film.
I write this as a hopeless devotee of such movies, even though they usually consist of a few tonnes of lead for a grain or two of fool’s gold.
Tarantino’s forte is to produce deliberate B films with A-grade production values – and budgets. Since his spectacular debut with Reservoir Dogs in 1992, he has systematically explored the bottom end of various cinematic genres including the gangster movie, martial arts, blaxploitation and war.
His Nazi film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), was a gruesome affair in which Tarantino played fast and loose with the history of the Second World War. In portraying Hitler and his armies as sinister clowns he turned the genuine evils of the Third Reich into cartoon capers. In this film the black comic style fell flat. It was crude, unfunny and gratuitously offensive. I felt so repelled I wondered if I could ever enjoy another Tarantino movie.
Three years later, along comes Django Unchained – Tarantino’s version of a spaghetti western. As a genre these films are so ridiculously violent it’s surprising it took him so long to get in on the act. Just as Inglourious Basterds found a prototype in a B-film by Enzo G. Castellari, Django Unchained takes its lead from one of the most notoriously violent of all spaghetti westerns.
The original Django (1966), by Sergio Corbucci, featured Franco Nero as a ruthless avenger. The name, Django, would subsequently be franchised into the titles of another 30 films, although Corbucci and Nero never made a reappearance. [Auguste Blackman has subsequently told me this is not true. He writes: “Nero did reprise his role as Django in 1987’s Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno (Django Strikes Again), in the only official sequel to be written by Corbucci.” He also recommends Silverado as his favourite western.]
It is one of Tarantino’s gags that Franco Nero has a cameo in  Django Unchained. The title role goes to Jamie Foxx, with support from Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, as Dr. King Schultz. This allows for a large helping of blaxploitation, and a surprising amount of Teutonic mythology, as our heroes are compared with Siegfried from the Nibelungenlied. There’s probably an essay in this, finding similarities between Tarantino and Wagner. Does the former own a pink silk dressing gown?
Django is a slave in the deep south, liberated by Dr. Schultz, an itinerant German bounty hunter. Schultz needs Django to help identify three ugly brothers with a price on their heads. He equips his assistant with a new outfit or two and teaches him the rudiments of the bounty hunter’s game. He also agrees to help Django rescue his wife, the improbably named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is a slave on another plantation.
With several blood-soaked encounters under their belts, Django and Dr. Schultz pose as promoters of “Mandingo fights”, where slaves are forced to wrestle each other to the death. The duo aim to win the trust of big landowner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is Broomhilda’s legal owner. Their deception fools everybody except Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s elderly black factotum. Needless to say, more mayhem and bloodshed follow.
While the plot is largely an excuse for one violent outburst after another, this long film manages to hold our interest from first to last. It reveals a director who is back in form, having tremendous fun with all the clichés of the genre.
Perhaps the western is already so comprehensively mythologised that one never feels history is being mangled as it was in Tarantino’s version of the Second World War. In Django Unchained, we think mainly of other movies – from the deadly loners of the spaghetti westerns, brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood et al, to the way that slavery has been portrayed in TV potboilers such as Roots (1977).
Tarantino has a taste for ethnic revenge fantasies, from the Nazi-hunting Jews of Inglourious Basterds to the black crusader played by Jamie Foxx in Django, with indignities inflicted on victims returned with maximum interest. He wants us to enjoy the sight of a black gunslinger blowing away the white guys – and it’s easy to comply because they’re uniformly mean, sadistic and villainous..
There is no room for tragedy in Tarantino’s world, only comedy. Slavery may be a fact of life in the south and the power of the big land-owners almost absolute, but this does not mean the entire edifice can’t be overturned by one cranky black man with a gun. It is, after all, a fiction, in which everything is dictated by the whims of the author-director. Tarantino has a natural flamboyance in this regard, being happy to resolve any moral distinctions with bullets.
His approach is so excessive it adds to the comedy, but it is sobering to step back from a film like Django, or the much inferior Gangster Squad, and think of the battles being fought in the United States over gun control. The weapons that kill people so freely in films seem less glamorous in real life when used on civilians.
Django is affirmative action taken to an absurd degree – a fable about seizing power from your oppressor, but in America anybody holding a gun can imagine themselves a Hollywood action hero. We can enjoy the carnage on screen, and even laugh at it, but there is an underlying sickness in this love affair with the gun. When we step out of the cinema these massacres no longer seem so entertaining.
After the calculated, cartoon excesses of Django Unchained, you may be in the mood for something a little less apocalyptic. The Guilt Trip replaces the forces of evil with the domineering personality of a Jewish mother, in the form of Barbra Streisand. The victim is her nerdy, overgrown son, played by Seth Rogen.
Anne Fletcher shows an impressively sure touch with this comedy about Andy Brewster, an only child who decides to take his mother, Joyce, on a road trip across the United States from New York to San Francisco. This was not Andy’s original intention when he visited Joyce before heading off on a long journey to promote a new bio-dynamic cleaning product he has invented. The invitation comes at the end of a conversation in which his mother reveals she loved another man before marrying Andy’s late father.
Andy gets on the internet, finds this man is living in San Francisco, and decides to take Joyce along to see if she can reignite an old flame. This is his secret intention, but the official line is that he looks forward to spending time with his doting parent.
This unconventional road movie still follows the familiar lines of the genre, as the physical journey becomes a journey of self-discovery. In this case, Andy and Joyce will discover new dimensions within themselves and each other. This is entirely predictable, but not as corny as it sounds. The film owes everything to a brisk, wryly humorous script by Dan Fogelman, and assured performances from Streisand and Rogen, who obviously have a fund of real-life experiences to draw upon.
Streisand has a gift for comedy and plays Joyce as youthful spirit who still exerts a sexual magnetism on the men they meet. Andy, a biochemist by profession, is more uptight. He has never maintained a long-term relationship with any woman and has become progressively wedded to his work.
While he is secretly plotting to reintroduce his mother to her old boyfriend, Joyce keeps tracking back over Andy’s romantic misadventures. She seems to grow more extroverted as the drive progresseswhile he becomes sullen as he struggles to find takers for his invention.
In contrast to the incipient megalomania associated with any Tarantino project, The Guilt Trip is an unambitious movie that succeeds on its own, modest terms. It is easy to like, but hard to get enthusiastic about. The story hangs on the rapport between Streisand and Rogen, in what is essentially a double act. If it never seems entirely convincing this is partly because of the nature of the characters. Andy often seems mildly traumatised by his mother, as if he has given up hope of ever winning an argument. The irony is that she always seems to get it right. He learns, to his chagrin, that her instincts are much sharper at every turn.
There are two good set pieces in this film – a  scene in a Texas restaurant in which Joyce decides to take the challenge and eat an enormous steak on stage within an hour; and a fleeting visit to the Grand Canyon.
The steak didn’t look much bigger than most of the meals served up in American diners, which are more suited to a family of six. Nevertheless, twenty years ago one wouldn’t have imagined Streisand as a candidate in a steak-eating contest. This is either casting against type or a terrible confession.
The visit to the Grand Canyon will strike a chord with many viewers who have travelled vast distances to see some wonder of nature, only to find the actual seeing takes no more than an instant. “How long are we supposed to stay here?” asks Joyce. “About fifteen minutes,” says Andy. They leave at once. I remember a similar experience at Niagara Falls.

Django Unchained, USA, rated MA 15+, 165 mins
The Guilt Trip, USA, rated M, 95 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 26, 2013