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81. Django Unchained (#61)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

A “Southern” set against the backdrop of the southern states in the lead-up to the Civil War. Freed by the German bounty hunter King Schultz, Django embarks upon a mission to free his wife Broomhilda from the clutches of slave-owner Calvin Candie. Together, Schultz and Django find themselves entering the heart of darkness.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 61st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Django Unchained and Tarantino Off the Chain….

Django Unchained is one of the most quietly influential movies of the twenty-first century.

It feels strange to acknowledge that fact, to say it out loud. On paper, it sounds absurd. Django Unchained is an R-rated western that deals with slavery in the manner of an exploitation film, released at Christmas. It is a movie that is downright abrasive, in terms of both tone and content. On the one hand, it is cheeky and provocative, playful and flippant; it is hyperstylised, from the Ennio Morricone score to the camera zooms to the bright flourishes of colour. It is also so violent and brutal that it is difficult to watch, even having seen the film before and knowing when the horrors are coming.

However, the film was a box office success. It earned over one hundred and sixty million dollars at the domestic box office, and more than two hundred and sixty million dollars at the foreign box office. More than that, it became a cultural touchstone. Jamie Foxx would reprise the role of Django in A Million Ways to Die in the West. The character would appear in a number of licensed comic book adaptations, including a crossover with Zorro published by Dynamite and Vertigo publishing.

The influence of Django Unchained is subtler than that. It is a film that shifted the conversation on the popular history of the United States. It did not do this alone, and it is hard to argue whether it was part of a broader cultural shift or simply a reaction to it. Nevertheless, Django Unchained coincided with a massive shift in how popular culture engaged with American history. Its impact is felt in the strangest of places, from the blending of horror movie conventions with a western aesthetic in films like The Revenant or Bone Tomahawk to the sounds of Kanye West playing over the opening scenes of Underground.

There had been movies about slavery before; indeed, Django Unchained was released roughly contemporaneously with both Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. However, there had never been a movie about slavery like this. The western genre had been greatly diminished before Django Unchained was released, but it was profoundly changed in its wake. After Django Unchained, it seemed to become impossible to construct a western without reference to the atrocities upon which the west had been won.

Django Unchained argued that these horrors weren’t just one version of the story, but instead an essential part of the overall story of the frontier and the nation. Sofia Coppola’s refusal to confront slavery in The Beguiled became a minor controversy. Even Hostiles confronted the genocide of the Native Americans. There were westerns that avoided these controversies in the intervening years, but they became fewer and further between. Indeed, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is perhaps most notable for the ill-judged scene in which its only major African American character attempts to lynch the white lead.

Still, even approaching Django Unchained more than half a decade removed from its release, it remains a fascinating and compelling piece of cinema. It is a genuinely provocative piece of cinema, one designed to challenge and upset the audience. However, the true beauty of the film lies as much in its contours and finer details as it does in the broad strokes, in the little touches that enrich and enlighten the finished product. In particular, the sense that Tarantino understands the precarious nature of what he is attempting, despite the somewhat flippant attitude towards violence and bloodshed.

This sense of consideration and reflection is perhaps best explored in the character of King Schultz, who is positioned quite cannily as a deconstruction of the familiar white saviour trope.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Memorial (Review)

Memorial is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager doing a generic Star Trek story.

The episode has a very basic premise that allows for the construction of a science-fiction allegory, the kind of storytelling associated with the franchise dating back to early adventures like The Devil in the Dark or Errand of Mercy. Despite its unique premise and set-up, Voyager had largely embraced the archetypal mode of Star Trek storytelling in its third season. A lot of Voyager episodes feel very broad and very generic, and could easily be adapted for another series – whether inside or outside the franchise.

The real devil in the dark.
Spoiler: It’s us.

There any number of episodes that are not rooted in the specific premise of Voyager, that could easily have been reworked or reinvented for another crew at another point. The Chute was a harrowing story about the horrors of mass incarceration and its capacity to turn people into animals. Nemesis was a meditation on killology, in the way that militaries turn soldiers into killing machines. Scientific Method was a treatise on the horrors of animal testing. Random Thoughts was paranoia about “political correctness gone mad” translated into forty minutes of television.

Memorial belongs to a very specific subset of these episodes, something of a bridge between the more generic Star Trek storytelling to which Voyager aspires and a slightly more specific area of thematic interest. Voyager is a series very much engaged with the idea of memory and history, perhaps befitting the Star Trek series that straddles the twentieth and twenty-first century. Episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness are all archetypal Star Trek stories, but they are built around ideas of particular interest to Voyager.

The past never remains buried.

As the title implies, Memorial belongs to that very specific subset of episodes. It is easy to imagine a version of Memorial starring James Tiberius Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Lafayette Sisko or Jonathan Beckett Archer. It is a generic Star Trek episode that could work with any crew, perhaps meaning something slightly different in each context. (On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would be an “O’Brien must suffer!” episode. In fact, Hard Time is quite close.) However, it is an episode that engages overtly with ideas that are of great interest to Voyager.

Memorial is about the importance of memory and history, even in a world where time seems to have lost all meaning.

Standing watch over history.

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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alliances (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more persistent and convincing criticisms of Star Trek: Voyager is the idea that it was very narrative conservative; that the show got comfortable playing out the familiar formula that had been established by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and so never attempted to innovate or experiment in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or eventually Star Trek: Enterprise) did. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the show as a whole, but it does ignore some of the weird tensions that played out across the first two seasons.

It is fair to say that Voyager never truly experimented. However, there are several moments in the first two seasons where it looks like the show was considering doing something unique or unprecedented. The show walked up to the edge, looking up and down; it never quite made the leap, but it seemed to weigh the possibility of jumping headlong into uncharted territory. However, it ultimately only dipped its toes in the water before getting cold feet and returning to the comfort of the familiar.

"Everyone liked Godfather III, right?"

“Everyone liked Godfather III, right?”

The sad truth about the second season of Voyager is that the show made a number of attempts to do something different or unique, only to botch each and every one of those attempts so completely that the production team learned not to even try. The second season’s more adventurous creative decisions all ended in humiliation and farce, explaining why the show desperately sought the warm blanket of a familiar format and an established template. After all, it was the more conventional episodes of the second season that had been (relatively) well received.

The second season of Voyager turned the process of trying something moderately ambitious and failing spectacularly into something of an artform. Of course, given the simmering tensions behind the scenes, it often seemed like the show wanted to fail. Michael Piller desperately wanted to do new things, only to meet resistance from his fellow producers and writing staff. Writers like Kenneth Biller would publicly criticise assignments they had been handed, offering a sense of just how much faith the staff had in these ideas.

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry..."

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”

Alliances marks perhaps the most ambitious element (and most spectacular failure) of the second season of Voyager. It is the centrepiece of Michael Piller’s attempts to develop the Kazon into a credible (and convincing) alien threat, while also setting up a recurring arc that will allow Piller to push Tom Paris into the role of “lovable rogue” of which Piller was so fond. These were elements that excited Piller a great deal, but left most of the rest of the production team relatively cold.

So there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Alliances is ultimately written by Jeri Taylor, who was increasingly at loggerheads with Piller over the direction of Voyager. In light of that context, it makes sense that Alliances is an episode that aggressively critiques its own existence. Janeway spends most of the episode frustrated at the fact that the story is happening at all, and Alliances builds towards a climax that seems designed to convince the viewer that this whole idea is misconceived on just about every possible level.

Blooming disaster...

Blooming disaster…

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The X-Files – The Gift (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Sweeps have arrived. And so has David Duchovny.

David Duchovny appeared in three of the four episodes of The X-Files broadcast in February 2001. (The fourth, Medusa, is very much the “blockbuster” episode of this stretch of the season, with a large budget and impressive scale.) This was very much a conscious choice on the part of the production team. Although Duchovny’s shooting schedule meant that the episodes were filmed across the season, the show made a choice to broadcast them all as part the February Sweeps.

He's back...

He’s back…

Indeed, even the order of the episodes in question has been jumbled around. The Gift is the third broadcast episode of the eighth season to feature an appearance by David Duchovny; it was filmed before Badlaa, but broadcast after it so as to open the Sweeps season. However, Per Manum would be the fourth broadcast episode of the eighth season to feature an appearance by David Duchovny; not only was it filmed before The Gift, it was actually filmed between Via Negativa and Surekill.

There is a sense, looking at the differences between the production and broadcast orders of the eighth season, that the production team were well aware of just how big a deal the return of David Duchovny would be. In fact, the decision to broadcast The Gift before Per Manum seems like a very canny attempt to tease those viewers excited about the return of Mulder. The character is much more prominent in Per Manum, so it feels like the decision to air his smaller supporting role in The Gift earlier is an effort in building suspense and excitement.

"The name's Doggett, John Doggett."

“The name’s Doggett, John Doggett.”

The Gift doesn’t offer much in the way of advancement for the season’s on-going story arcs. Although the teaser is smart enough to build to the reveal of David Duchovny, the character only appears in quick flashes throughout the episode. Mulder has less than half-a-dozen lines over the course of the show’s forty-five minutes. He does not directly encounter (or engage with) Doggett or Scully, only appearing for a brief moment as a vision in the basement at the end of the episode. Fans eagerly anticipating Mulder’s return would undoubtedly be frustrated.

However, there is something almost endearing in the show’s playful teasing of its fanbase. It feels almost like the show getting comfortable with itself once again. Indeed, the structure of the episode – paralleling Mulder’s investigation with that of Doggett rather than intersecting them – seems to suggest that perhaps the show might be in good hands without the need to have Mulder literally validate his successor.

Now that's branding...

Now that’s branding…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – North Star (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

It is surprising just how hasty some sections of Star Trek fandom are to dismiss North Star as absurd or ham-fisted or ridiculous.

It is precisely those qualities the make North Star quintessential Star Trek.

Spectre of gun...

Spectre of gun…

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