CANNES – The invitation arrived yesterday afternoon, and it immediately got my attention since the giant banner on the front of the Majestic Hotel has been driving me crazy all week long. It’s very simple, just the Saul Bass-style chain design and the title “Django Unchained,” but that’s enough at this point. I’m always excited by a new Quentin Tarantino film, but this one in particular tackles subject matter that I find intriguing, and I’m dying to see how it actually plays onscreen.
It was an easy decision to make. Instead of seeing a new film tonight, I put on a suit and headed over to the Majestic, where The Weinstein Company threw a cocktail reception designed to showcase footage from three of the films they are releasing later this year. Each of them is from an exciting filmmaker, and two of them are among the most highly-anticipated properties in production at the moment. Earlier this afternoon, the first clip from Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” arrived online, and I posted a short reaction to that. I was curious to see if they would show us anything different, and after about a half-hour of drinks and finger food, they ushered us into an adjoining room, where they had set up chairs and a large screen.
Harvey Weinstein walked to the front of the room and, without any preamble, just began speaking. “Hi, everyone. When I was 13 years old, I had a bar mitzvah, and a film was shot, but only two minutes were shown. Marty Scorsese found it, and I got you here under false pretenses. We’re going to watch the one-hour version which was lovingly restored by all the directors I’ve ever argued with over the years. There are no scenes of me in any of it.”
As the laughter subsided, he smiled, relaxed and visibly confident about what he was about to screen. “Anyway, today is a wonderful opportunity to show you some footage and three trailers from three very unique masters of cinema. They are Paul Thomas Anderson, and we’ll start with ‘The Master,’ written and directed by Paul and you’ll see Joaquin Phoenix and you’ll see Amy Adams and you’ll see Philip Seymour Hoffman. And then the second trailer is ‘Silver Linings,’ written and directed by David O. Russell, and it stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jackie Weaver, and Chris Tucker. And the third is ‘Django Unchained,’ which is Quentin Tarantino, as you know.”
He thanked the production partners on the films, and then stepped aside for the first bit of footage. I thought it was interesting that he called these “three of the best things we’ve ever been associated with, if not the best themselves.” High praise, and certainly a sign of some faith in what they’ve got coming.
Let’s break down each of the presentations in order.
If you saw the trailer earlier today, you have some idea of what we saw, but it was a different assembly. While the soundtrack was the same at the beginning, with that unnerving Jonny Greenwood score and the interview between the Army official and Joaquin Phoenix, the images themselves were different. We saw Phoenix standing in a hallway, writing on a piece of paper affixed to a corkboard. As the interview reached its end, the camera pushed forward so we could read the very short and direct note: “Gone to China,” and then his signature.
We saw the same footage of the fight on the beach, the footage of him drinking the alcohol that looks like it’s coming from a torpedo, and then the close-up of him sitting across from the guy that’s interviewing him. “What happened? Sir?”
“Let’s just see if we can’t help you remember what happened.”
Then began new footage. Joaquin Phoenix running across a field, afraid. Him on a boat, walking along a deck at night. And then his first encounter with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He asks Hoffman, “What do you do?”
“I do many many things. I am a doctor, a writer, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man.”
We see Hoffman onstage, addressing a group. “I’d like to talk to you today about cold feet and narrow minds. People who have cold feet cannot move forward. People who have narrow minds cannot move side to side. They both take courage. This is what I’d like to talk about.”
Then Amy Adams is introduced, and she’s got a crazy intensity, even in these short clips, that practically radiates off the screen. “This exercise will help you with your concentration. Look at my eyes. I want you to place something in the future for yourself that you would like to have. It’s there, waiting for you.”
Then it’s back to Hoffman and Phoenix, sitting across from each other in some intense encounter, Hoffman challenging him. “Say your name.”
Phoenix sounds hesitant in his response. “Freddie Crock.”
“Say it again.”
Louder this time. “Freddie Crock.”
“Might as well say it one more time, just to make sure you know who you are.”
We see a group of people shooting on the beach, Phoenix among them, and then we see Adams confronting Hoffman, almost in tears. “And this is where we are at,” she says. “At the lowest level. To have to explain ourselves. For what? For what we do, we have to grovel. The only way to defend ourselves is to attack. If we don’t do that, we will lose every battle we are engaged in. We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.”
Now we appear to be jumping scene to scene, moment to moment. It’s just impressions. Adams laughing, out of control. “It’s a grim joke.”
Hoffman groans. “I was thoughtless in my remarks.”
As the scenes cut from one to the next, we keep returning to a haunting image of Phoenix, framed in a window, punching himself in the head. Fast.
Hoffman accuses him. “You linger in bus stations for pleasure.” Another shot of Phoenix, punching faster now. Back to Hoffman. “Is your life a struggle?” Punching faster and faster. “Is your behavior erratic? Are you unpredictable?” Phoenix, sitting across from Hoffman, farts loudly and begins to laugh as Hoffman recoils. “What a horrible young man you are.”
It seems like they’re picking at him, breaking him down. “You’re a dirty animal who eats its own feces when it’s hungry.”
We see them meeting, talking about Phoenix. Amy Adams in particular doesn’t seem to trust him. “I wonder how he got here and what he’s after. Is it really all so easy that he just came across us? He’s dangerous and he will be our undoing if we continue to have him here.”
Hoffman’s not convinced, though. “If we are not helping him, then it is we who have failed him… is it not?”
Adams is the last one to speak as the title comes up. “The Master.” Simple white letters on a black background. “Perhaps he’s past help. Or insane.” And the Greenwood score ends on a lone violin, mournful. It was a dizzying piece of footage, and much of it was just close-ups against stark black backgrounds, these great actors and their faces and nothing else. It certainly made me eager to see what PTA has been up to, and it also pretty much confirms any report that tied the film to the origins of Scientology. While they may not be doing a straight biopic of L. Ron Hubbard, if you’re familiar with his life, it would be impossible not to see him and his wife and the early followers in what we saw tonight.
“The Silver Linings Playbook”
This is the one I knew least about before tonight, and I’ve never read the novel by Matthew Quick. The description on Quick’s website gives a pretty solid idea of what to expect, at least in terms of plot:
“… the riotous and poignant story of how one man regains his memory and comes to terms with the magnitude of his wife’s betrayal.
During the years he spends in a neural health facility, Pat Peoples formulates a theory about silver linings: he believes his life is a movie produced by God, his mission is to become physically fit and emotionally supportive, and his happy ending will be the return of his estranged wife Nikki. When Pat goes to live with his parents, everything seems changed. No one will talk to him about Nikki, his old friends are saddled with families, the Philadelphia Eagles keep losing, making his father moody, and his new therapist seems to be recommending adultery as a form of therapy.
When Pat meets the tragically widowed, physically fit, and clinically depressed Tiffany, she offers to act as a liaison between him and his wife, if only he will give up watching football, agree to perform in this year”s Dance Away Depression competition, and promise not to tell anyone about their ‘contract.” All the while, Pat keeps searching for his silver lining.”
What interests me immediately is the involvement of David O. Russell, who I think is deeply underrated, and who seems to have been cursed over the last few years. Yes, I know all the stories about how wildly difficult he can be, but I still adore “Flirting With DIsaster” and “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees,” and I root for him to get back on track. Based on the footage we saw, he may have a winner here.
The footage opens with Bradley Cooper, starring as Pat, still inside the mental hospital. A Stevie Wonder song is playing, and Cooper confronts a nurse about it. “Is that song really playing? That song is killing me. Did Dr. Timbers put you up to this?” He assaults the speakers, pulling them off the wall, and we cut to the doctor’s office.
“I’m sorry about that song. I just wanted to see if it’s still a trigger for you.”
“Bravo. It’s still a trigger.”
Pat gets out of the hospital. We see him telling his family, including Robert De Niro as his father and Jackie Weaver as his mother, that he’s recovered. “I feel motivated. I don’t feel so angry all the time.” He tells his family about his plans. “I think He’s waiting for me to get my life in order and get in shape, and then Nikki’s going to be with me.”
They seem unconvinced, though. “Nikki sold the house. She left.” Cooper tells them that he wants to control his illness, that he hates being sick. De Niro encourages him. “Don’t drink. Don’t fight. Don’t hit anybody. You should be okay.”
So of course, we see him hitting people and getting in fights.
It’s nice to see Chris Tucker in a trailer for something. It’s been way too long since we’ve seen him in a movie. He plays a former patient who is also a friend of Pat’s, and it seems like he’s a far less manic version of the Chris Tucker we used to see. Before her character is introduced, someone warns Pat that there is no more “Tiffany and Tommy” because Tommy died, and he needs to be careful about what he says to her.
His introduction to her is, “Hey, Tiffany, you look nice. How’d Tommy die?”
The rest of the trailer is basically his crazy versus her crazy, and they both look like they’re going to rip it up. I like seeing Cooper in this kind of a role, and Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t be any more appealing if she tried. When she was doing press for “The Hunger Games,” the personality she revealed was very different than what we’ve seen from her on film so far, and this seems like she’s playing something closer to the real her, funny and brash and charming.
It looks like a big fat mainstream comedy, and it could be a nice rebound for Russell. He’s certainly got a cast that looks like they’ve come to play, and as trailers go, it’s an effective introduction to what seems like a hard concept to boil down to three quick minutes.
Then, finally, we saw the Weinstein Company logo, the Columbia logo, and seven minutes of pure unfiltered pleasure began. I think it’s safe to say there is no movie in production right now that I want to see more than this one, and this may have made the wait harder, not easier.
The opening images are of slaves, with bare backs criss-crossed with whip-scars and bare feet, marched along through day and night, across a desert, through a forest. The men leading the slaves along, riding on horseback, hear someone else in the woods, and they stop.
“Who’s that stumbling around in the dark? State your business or prepare to get winged!”
A wagon comes riding up out of the darkness, and sitting at the reigns is Christoph Waltz. On top of the wagon, there’s a giant tooth mounted on a spring. “Calm yourselves, gentlemen, I mean you no harm. I’m Dr. King Schultz, and this is my horse Fritz.”
Fritz blows a greeting at the mention of his name.
The men peer at him suspiciously. “You a doctor?”
“What kind of doctor?”
Waltz sloooooowly turns and looks up at the self-explanatory tooth. “Dentist.” There’s a jump in time as Schultz makes his pitch, slowly walking up the line of slaves, looking at each face in the light from his lantern. “Among your inventory I’ve been led to believe is a specimen I’m keen to acquire.” He stops on Jamie Foxx, who won’t even meet his eyes at first. “What’s your name?”
When Foxx replies, it’s low. “Django.”
“Then you’re exactly the one I’m looking for.”
It’s obvious that the men who were leading the slaves aren’t eager to make a deal with him. “Hey, no sale.” One of them draws a gun on Waltz, who seems unimpressed.
“My good man, did you simply get carried away with your dramatic gesture, or are you pointing your weapon at me with lethal intention?” In response, the rest of the men also draw their guns, all of them cocking them. Waltz seems both disappointed and resigned at their response, sighing. “Oh, very well.” Without hesitation, he fires three times.
James Russo, playing one of the men, ends up screaming, pinned under a fallen horse. “I’m gonna lose this leg!” he bellows as Waltz gets closer.
Waltz shrugs. “No doubt.” One more gunshot, and then the slaves are free. Waltz advises Foxx, as he begins to dress himself, “If I were you, I’d take that winter coat.” And like that, the two of them ride away.
As they ride into a town together, people stop, watching them both go by. “What’s everybody staring at?” Waltz asks.
“They ain’t never seen no nigger on a horse before,” Foxx responds.
“What is this bizarre obsession they have with you riding a horse?”
“Are you asking me why white people do what they do?”
A Johnny Cash song kicks in on the soundtrack, because nothing says ominous like Johnny Cash singing about graves. Waltz and Foxx sit in a saloon together, talking, the entire place empty except for them. Foxx asks, “What kind of dentist are you?”
“These days, I practice a new profession. Bounty hunter.”
“You kill people.. and they give you a reward?”
“The badder they are, the bigger the reward. Which brings me to you. I’m looking for the Brittle brothers.” And as this next exchange takes place, we see a flashback to Django with his wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, as they are torn apart by the aforementioned Brittle brothers.
“I know what they look like,” Foxx says. “They stole my wife.”
“I would like the two of us to enter into an agreement. We visit every plantation out there until we find them. Once the final Brittle brother lies dead in the dust, I’ll take you to rescue your wife. Handsome cowboy hat included.” That is one elegant distillation of the film’s sprawling plot.
What I was most concerned about with the casting of Foxx was that he simply wouldn’t look like he was of the times. He’s such a modern presence that it seemed hard for me to picture. But looking at him here, listening to his line readings, seeing him in the world that Tarantino has captured, I am sold. I love the way he’s portraying the West, and it feels to me like the far more dirty low-rent cousins to Sergio Leone, the guys whose names aren’t thrown around by movie snobs. It is a beautiful use of real locations, and it feels suitably epic.
“Why do you care what happens to me? Why do you care if I find my wife?”
“You’re just not ready to go off on your own. You’ll get hurt. While we’re together, I’ll teach you a few things you’re going to need to know.” Little by little, we see Django cleaning up, starting to pull himself together. He goes from rough slave to polished cowboy, and he and Waltz look great together. There’s a real energy between them, even in these clips. It’s obvious that Walsh is feasting on this script like it’s a buffet and he’s a starving man.
We see the two of them in the snow, Waltz coaching him on how to shoot. “Smooth is more important than fast, and more important than smooth is accurate.” He demonstrates with a few shots. “Once you get smooth, then you get fast.” Foxx responds by drawing his gun and taking his shots, blowing the head clean off the snowman that Waltz built for a target. Waltz smiles, impressed. “I think it’s safe to say you’re faster than a snowman.”
The Johnny Cash song ends, and we cut to a scene as Django and Schultz come riding up the main road on the property of Spencer Bennet, played here by Don Johnson, who has the smarm turned up to about 1000. Once again, Schultz is in his dentist wagon, and Foxx rides alongside on his horse, dressed in an absolutely absurd blue suit. “My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet Django, and these are our horses Tony and Fritz…”
This time, both horses give a noise of greeting, as if on cue.
Johnson, watching them from the balcony of his house, seems unimpressed. “Well, what if I say I don’t like you or your fancy-pants nigger?”
“Mr. Bennet, if you are the businessman I’ve been led to believe you to be, I have 5000 things I might say that could change your mind.”
A big smile creeps across Johnson’s face. “Well, come on inside, and get yourself something cool to drink. Betina!”
Miriam Glover, playing one of Bennet’s slaves, steps up. “Yes’m, Big Daddy?”
To Waltz: “What’s your nigger’s name again?”
“Betina, sugar, could you take Django here around the property and show him all the pretty stuff?”
“As you will, Big Daddy.”
Before they go inside, Waltz stops Johnson. “Mr. Bennet, I must warn you that Django is a free man. He cannot be treated like a slave. Within the bounds of good taste, he needs to be treated as an extension of myself.”
“Understood, Shultz.” Once more, Johnson calls down. “Uh, Betina, sugar?”
“Django isn’t a slave. Django is a free man. Y’understand?”
“Yes’m, Big Daddy.” To Foxx. “Come on.”
As she leads Foxx away, they start to talk. “Whatchoo do for your master?”
“Didn’t you hear him tell you I ain’t no slave?”
“So you really free?”
“Yes. I am.”
“You mean you wanna dress like that?” Trust me… when you see the electric blue suit they’ve got Foxx in, you’ll see why that’s a laugh out loud line.
“Betina, we’re looking for three white men, three overseers. The name is Brittle. You know ’em?”
She doesn’t hesitate and just points. “Well, one’s over in that field.” Foxx’s reaction is priceless. That is not what he expected to hear, and he’s got no reason to hesitate. There’s a great shot of Bennet and Schultz sitting inside talking, and we see through a window as Django storms by in the background.
We see M.C. Gainey as Big John Brittle, preparing to whip a slave woman he’s got stripped to the waist, as Betina asks, “Is that who you was looking for?”
As the slave closes her eyes and begs, crying “I ain’t gonna do it again! I ain’t gonna do it again!”, MC Gainey prepares his whip, obviously enjoying himself.
“After this,” he says, preparing to strike, “we’ll see if you break eggs again.”
Before he can swing, though, Django stops behind him, and calls out “JOHN BRITTLE.”
Gainey turns, realizes who he’s looking at, and freezes. Foxx doesn’t wait, though. He just pulls his gun and fires, blowing a hole in Gainey’s chest. He goes down hard, and Django steps up, stares down at him. “I like the way you die, boy.”
And with that, James Brown’s “The Big Payback” kicks in on the soundtrack, big and brash and rowdy, just like the film appears to be. We finally see Leonardo Di Caprio in character as Calvin, dressed well but with rotten teeth, and he addresses Django and Schultz. “We got us a fight going on that’s a good bit of fun.”
His character, Calvin Candie, is one of the most pivotal in the film, and we see a bit of Waltz and Foxx trying to win his confidence. He mentions that one of his men said, “You looked over my African flesh, and you was not too impressed. You wanna buy a beat-ass nigger from me? Those are the beat-ass niggers I’m wiling to sell.”
It’s Foxx who responds, “He don’t want the nigger you wanna sell. He wants the nigger you don’t want to sell.”
As the song pauses for a moment, Candie sizes them up again. “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”
So many quick shots start to pile up in the footage at this point. There was an amazing shot of Schultz firing his gun and one of the casings flips up out of the chamber and gets stuck in his hat. Lots of blood. Big nasty squirts of it. At one point, Foxx snarls, “You even touch your guns, you die,” and it looks like quite a few people must touch their guns, because there is a rapid-fire montage of gunplay and mayhem, along with Leone-like title cards for each of the main characters including Kerry Washington. We also get a quick look at Walton Goggins, who I hear has delighted Tarantino so far on the shoot, and whose role is evidently growing each day.
Finally, as the trailer wraps up, Waltz asks Foxx, “So, how do you like the bounty hunting business?” A few more shots of Django raining pain down on some well-deserving targets, the James Brown back and kicked up even louder now.
After a few more deaths, we see Foxx again, and he comes the closest we see in the whole trailer to a smile. “What’s not to like?”
The last bit is in a saloon, and none other than Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film, is sitting next to Jamie Foxx, and asks him, “What’s your name?”
Foxx replies, this time without any hesitation or shame, “Django. The ‘d’ is silent.”
And that’s that. It was so confident, so alive, and so very, very funny in execution that I have to believe Quentin’s on his way to another monster hit here. The cinematography by Robert Richardson looks great. The production design is lush and period-accurate. The soundtrack choices were great. And Christoph Waltz appears to be well on his way to his second major awards season in LA next year. And as you can tell from some of the dialogue, the film, set just before the Civil War, is going to pull no punches in terms of it portrays a world where African slaves were treated as subhuman, and it should make Django’s revenge quest all the more satisfying in the end.
My thanks to The Weinstein Company for including us in tonight’s event. It was well worth it, and I certainly can’t wait to see the finished results for all three of the films they highlighted tonight.