Jackie Brown (1997)
by Steve Habrat
After the massive success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the hype around Quentin Tarantino was through the roof. He put a creative spin on the gangster movie with Reservoir Dogs, made Pulp Fiction, which was labeled a modern day masterpiece, and then turned around and nabbed a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it. Everyone was wondering what this exploitation-obsessed film guru would do next. Rather than writing another original screenplay, Tarantino chose to pen an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. Reworking the title as Jackie Brown and swapping the heroine’s race from white to black, Tarantino makes a modern day blaxploitation film that actually turns out to be his most mature work in his catalogue. Leaving behind the countless pop culture references and dialing back on the knee-jerk violence, Jackie Brown is a slow moving drama that lacks the instantly iconic characters and razor sharp humor that peppered his first two films. In true Tarantino fashion, he has gathered an ensemble cast and even found a way to revitalize the careers of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and B-movie actor Robert Forster, who went on to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role. Despite being more mature, Jackie Brown does sag a little under its weight and lengthy run time, but I’ll be damned if Tarantino doesn’t put up a fight to keep the film off the ground.
Jackie Brown (Played by Pam Grier) is a beautiful but lonely flight attendant for a small Mexican airline called Cabalas Airlines. On the side, Jackie, whose career has hit a snag, smuggles money from Mexico to the United States for charismatic gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out that Ordell is under surveillance by the ATF. After one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Played by Chris Tucker), is arrested, Ordell visits bail bondsman Max Cherry (Played by Robert Forster) and arranges for a $10,000 bail to spring Livingston out of fear that he may become an informant. It turns out that Livingston already blabbed to ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Played by Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Played by Michael Bowen) while in custody and the two men intercept Jackie while she is arriving at the airport. Fearing that Jackie may also become an informant, Ordell once again visits Max and arranges her bail. After meeting Jackie, the mild mannered Max begins developing feelings for the tough flight attendant. Meanwhile, Ordell plans to murder Jackie but instead, she negotiates a deal to smuggle $550,000 of Ordell’s money out of Mexico, enough cash for him to retire. Ordell agrees, unaware that Jackie may be helping out the ATF agents. To make sure he ends up with the money, Ordell hires a stoner beach bunny named Melanie Ralston (Played by Bridget Fonda) and former cellmate Louis Gara (Played by Robert DeNiro) to help out with the job. With this much money involved, all the thugs begin devising way to make off with the cash for themselves but Jackie has other plans.
At two and a half hours, Jackie Brown certainly has its fair share of backstabbing, double crosses, and scheming going on. While it seemed appropriate in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown seems to just be rambling on and sometimes not in a good way. The first hour of the film is fun, a little sexy, and funny in spurts, but after a while, I was left wishing that Tarantino would pop the cork on crazy and get the party started. He never really does and it is slightly disappointing. However, you can’t really blame Tarantino for toning it down a bit after his rambunctious behavior in Pulp Fiction (Who could forget the Gimp?). And then there is the trademark dialogue, something we really look forward to when going into his movies. In Jackie Brown, you feel as though Tarantino is blending his dialogue with Leonard’s and the results are mixed. There are a few funny lines here and there and only a few moments where it is truly memorable, but none of it comes close to what was in his first two films. Despite lacking the shock and crazy of his first two films, Jackie Brown does prove that Tarantino can pile on the emotion and really hook us with a touching love story. You really root for the romance between Jackie and Max, a love that is really the heart and soul of the movie. It is like Tarantino revealing his softer side, something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy too much (just watch an interview with him). Dare I say that Jackie Brown makes us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside?
If the bloated plot of Jackie Brown begins to wear on you, you may find some relief in the performances, mostly the ones from Grier and Forster. Grier is in fine form as the sensitive but fierce Jackie, one tough mama who doesn’t put up with any of the torment dished out by Ordell. Age seems to be holding Grier back from really kicking ass and taking names but she is as sharp as a tack when it comes to staying one step ahead of everyone but Max. Forster is measured, gentle, and subtle as Max Cherry, the kindly bail bondsman who develops a crush on the curvy Jackie. You can’t help but love him as he jams out to crooning R&B classics in his car, music he heard from our badass heroine. Together, the form an unlikely romance but I suppose that opposites attract. Plus, you feel like Max really deserves this romance. Jackson tones down the intensity he brought to Pulp Fiction and brings a menacing cool to Ordell. Watching him manipulate the thugs around him will have your knuckles whitening, especially when he shows up at Jackie’s apartment to settle some business. DeNiro is quiet fun as the loose cannon Louis, a slouchy thug who never can resist the bong in front of him. He gets some great moments with Fonda’s Melanie, a perpetually stoned and horny beach bunny who is always taking too long to get ready. Keaton is on point as the hotshot ATF agent who is always chewing on a piece of gum. We also get a funny and jumpy performance from the rarely seen but always welcome Chris Tucker as Livingston. Tucker isn’t here long but you’ll certainly remember his character.
Even if things are a little too drawn out, Jackie Brown still manages to entertain you even in its slower moments. I really enjoyed the scenes where Louis and Ordell sat around and discussed firearms over beer and weed as Melanie rolls her eyes in boredom. These scenes crackled with Tarantino’s punchy dialogue and humor, his usual trademarks. I also enjoyed the way Tarantino laid out the climax of the film, dropping all of his characters into a busy shopping mall and letting them try to outsmart each other while the money bops around in a shopping bag. Then there is the final confrontation, which does flirt with Tarantino’s unpredictable flashes of violence and bloodshed. Overall, I do like Jackie Brown and I have to say that I did fall head over heels for Grier and Forster. I also love the idea that the film is a big fat valentine to Grier and her feisty roles from years past. Yet as a tribute to blaxploitation cinema, Jackie Brown is a little clunky. It seems to lack the sass of the blaxploitation subgenre. I give Tarantino credit for breaking away from his usual formula but Jackie Brown left me starving for his crazy side.
Jackie Brown is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Django Unchained (2012)
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.
Sugar Hill (1974)
by Steve Habrat
Who doesn’t love a good revenge flick? How about some revenge served up from a bunch of voodoo zombies? If revenge at the hands of zombies sounds like a good time to you, check out Sugar Hill, one of the most unique grind house/exploitation/blaxploitation films I have ever seen. Mind you, Sugar Hill isn’t the type of zombie film where the ghouls shuffle about the swamp and chew on human flesh at random. No, Sugar Hill’s zombies suddenly appear, wearing bulging silver eyes, covered in cobwebs, and stalking their victims with machetes and what not. They also have a puppet master, two to be exact, who commands them to slay their victims. A so-so little mash up of a horror film mixed with a gangster picture, Sugar Hill doesn’t really scare you or gross you out, its just absurd and partly amusing. The problem is the film dries up about half way through and begins to be a bit wearisome.
After the murder of her affectionate boyfriend at the hands of some white gangsters, Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (Played by Marki Bey) looks to a voodoo queen named Mama Maitresse (Played by Zara Cully), who conjures up the Baron Zamedi (Played by Don Pedro Colley), the Lord of the Dead, and his army of undead killers. Sugar asks Baron Zamedi to aid her in her quest to avenge the death of her boyfriend. He agrees and they begin tracking down the gangsters who have wronged her, each one meeting a nasty end at the hands of his undead hit men. As the bodies pile up, a local cop named Valentine (Played by Richard Lawson) begins to suspect there may be more to the murders than just a simple gang war. As he gathers more evidence, he begins to suspect Sugar and the supernatural may have something to do with the bizarre slayings.
Sugar Hill is the only feature film to be directed by Paul Maslansky, the man who acted as producer of such films as Raw Meat, Police Academy, and Return to Oz (What a variety, huh?). Maslansky directs Sugar Hill cautiously, limiting himself when it comes to the gore and butchery, ending up with a surprisingly conservative film. For a ridiculous zombie exploitation film, the film has very little carnage for the violence-hungry viewer. The film does touch on every trait that makes up the blaxploitation film including hit men, gangsters, racial slurs, white antagonists, and using the South as a backdrop. The film also explains that the undead hit men are the preserved bodies of slaves brought to America from Guinea. This is perhaps the only thought provoking aspect of Sugar Hill, undead slaves rising from the graves and knocking off vicious white men, but the film never attempts to elaborate on this aspect.
Sugar Hill does have some above average performances for such a goofy mash up of a film. Credit should go to Marki Bey and Don Pedro Colley, both who seem to be having a lot of fun playing with monsters. I did root for Bey and her I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore attitude. She is sometimes a bit soft for a swirling ball of fury but you can’t help but root for her when she drops a gangster into a pen with a slew of hungry pigs and bellows, “I hope they’re into white trash!” Don Pedro Colley laps up his role as Baron Zamedi, giggling through such lines of dialogue like, “Perhaps a drink on the house, sir. My particular special, a drink that I’m famous for… The ZOMBIE!” He sometimes sounds like a southern, African American version of Bela Lugosi as Dracula, especially when two ghostly brides accompany him. He’s camp wearing gold teeth and black smudges around his eyes to let the audience know he’s dead. It’s Bey and Colley that add a little bit of flavor to a mostly bland film experience.
And what about those zombies? The zombies are the coolest part of Sugar Hill, popping up like ghouls in a fun house, grinning wildly as they stare at their target. The unsettling touch of bulging silver eyes are the most terrifying part of Sugar Hill, giving the ghouls an alien-like effect. The zombies are hilariously slathered in make-up that attempts to make them look bony and emaciated, but they look like they should be in a Day of the Dead parade. Half the time, it is impossible to really see what they do to their victims and they mostly just stare at a shuddering gangster. One poor sap meets his end during a spooky massage (Death by massage! Now THAT is a first!!) while another is forced to stab himself to death when a voodoo doll catches fire, a death the zombies had barely anything to do with. You can’t help but get the feeling that sometimes the zombies are in the frame because Maslansky thought they looked cool.
Don’t look to Sugar Hill for a really deep experience. The film has fun with itself at times (A severed chicken leg trying to murder a baddie!) but is ultimately too flat too often. Sugar Hill becomes an early example that the mixing of two drastically different film genres is not always the wisest decision. Sure, it takes some confidence to really believe in your premise and I will give the filmmakers credit for attempting something different, but the zombie genre and blaxploitation genre go together like oil and water. I’m always game for a bloody revenge flick especially if it is an hour and a half of absurdly bloody retribution. Sadly, Sugar Hill never really lets loose.
Sugar Hill is now available on DVD.