For close to two decades, Jeffrey Wright has been one of the finest actors working on stage and screen. He won a Tony in 1994 for his breathtaking turn as Belize, an ex–drag queen and pallative caregiver, in Angels in America and, 10 years later, he took home an Emmy after reprising his role in HBO's adaptation of the play. In between and afterward he's delivered iconic performances as American icons including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Martin Luther King Jr., and Colin Powell. Now Wright is tackling a historical figure that's entirely fictional, playing the fascinating and nefarious Dr. Valentin Narcisse on the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire (premiering this Sunday).
I've had my issues with Boardwalk in the past, but the precision and grace of Wright's performance silences all criticism. His Dr. Narcisse — based, in part, on actual Harlem powerbrokers like Casper Holstein — is instantly the most compelling character in a show overstuffed with them: He's a dapper and educated rival to Michael Kenneth Williams's Chalky White, one who preaches black nationalism but has no qualms about arranging heroin deals in Marcus Garvey's office. Having the chance to speak to Wright at length about the role — how he pushed for changes in Narcisse in response to his own frustration with movies like Django Unchained; how one of the most appealing things about joining the show was his five-minute commute to the set from his Brooklyn home — was a pleasure and a privilege. Over the course of nearly an hour, our conversation ranged from representations of race in film to The Hunger Games (Wright is a costar in the upcoming Catching Fire), from magical bourbon to the way Jay Z was "a little late" in branding himself the new Basquiat.
As the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees continue limping onto VOD, the latest entry is also the penultimate one. Amour, see you whenever. Django, welcome to the living rooms of America. No, we haven't seen a, er, "an African American" on a horse before. (If you haven't seen the movie yet, the original line is just slightly different. Keep an ear out for it!)
Just kidding: If you only know one thing about Django Unchained, it's probably that a hateful term for African Americans is used, like, hundreds of times — but not so much that you ever get used to it. What else you need to know is that, as in his last film, Inglourious Basterds, writer-director Quentin Tarantino deals with a hideous chapter of human history by creating a parallel universe in which the oppressed contrive to destroy their oppressors, period accuracy be damned. As usual, Tarantino has too hard a time editing himself, but the film is still, at turns, funny, poignant, gory, and tense. Amid it all, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz (who won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), and Samuel L. Jackson seem to be competing in a "Who's Having the Most Fun?" contest. (I'm pretty sure no one does that in Amour.)
The life and times of Quentin Tarantino have gotta be great, right? Sure, making ambitious, super long movies must be taxing. But QT in the offseason? Just listening to albums both obscure and classic, watching all the best old films and all the worst old films, and eating good food. That’s probably basically it. The music and film connoisseurship has been sufficiently noted in the 21 years since Reservoir Dogs. But what about Tarantino's love for grub, his propensity to set scenes in that heart of domesticity and good times, the kitchen? My DVD of Pulp Fiction included a fake menu to a fake restaurant, for chrissakes. (Were you aware JackRabbit Slim's serves three flavors of pie?) The amount of impeccable dialogue exchanged over some form of meat product is a marvel. This side of Tarantino is something of an underdocumented phenomenon, so on this day of Django Unchained’s DVD and Blu-ray release, we’re looking back at the 20 best Tarantino scenes where kitchens and foods factor in. Spoilers for Django and many other films herein.
First, a couple of Florida reps flamed Jay-Z and "the diva Beyoncé" for their trip to Cuba. Then Hova responded with "Open Letter" ("Politicians never did shit for me except lie to me, distort history, wanna give me jail time and a fine Obama said, 'Chill, you gonna get me impeached. You don't need this shit anyway, chill with me on the beach'"). And then things got really good: Press Secretary Jay Carney found himself in the strange position of explaining to a press conference that (a) it was a song, y'all, and (b) "I guess nothing rhymes with treasury." Sure, there are some near rhymes (wild celery, feathery, telephone directory), but they really do lack punch. I'd beg someone out there to remix this video, perhaps adding AutoTune or launching an entire web series devoted to White House press events dissecting Snoop Lion's stance on same-sex marriage or the political relevance of "Hey Porsche," but I'm sure there's a mastermind already at work.
The Chinese government keeps a pretty tight hold on the number of Hollywood movies that infiltrate the country's borders ever year. Officially, only 20 American flicks per annum are let in (although pirated DVDs means that access to many more titles is readily available), so if you're trying to expand the ol' revenue stream, you really can't go wrong with cracking that 20. Congrats, then, to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. According to Zhang Miao, director of Sony Pictures' Chinese branch, Django will be the first Tarantino movie to open in China. And all Quentin had to do was lower the height of his blood splatter.
The Oscars' Best Original Song category is responsible for Juicy J having as many Academy Awards as Christopher Plummer, and yet I still hate it. That's how bad it is. We could have built an entire Oscar-travesties ballot consisting of nothing but egregious Best Song snubs and inexplicable Best Song winners. No Oscar category is more broken, or operates from a more antiquated methodology; Best Original Song is a travesty-generating machine. Given the choice in the first round, Grantland's readers voted pretty overwhelmingly that Samuel L. Jackson losing to Martin Landau constituted a bigger blot on the Oscars' legacy than the entire ignominious history of the Best Song category as a whole, which means we didn't get to fully explore said ignominy. So let's do that now.
My excitement for Christoph Waltz hosting SNL was tempered with some measure of fear because, as we all know, this season has been a little slumpy. Waltz is such a likable and accomplished performer that I felt concerned that the writing would fail him, that we’d watch him flailing around in a jokeless DJ Booth or helplessly stranded in The Situation Room, maybe wearing a large hat with a pair of deelyboppers on it. I would want to reach into my television and save him if it wasn’t working out. But that wasn’t the case. Maybe because of Djesus Uncrossed, maybe because of Waltz pulling off a jaunty dance while begging “Mama let me fly,” or just maybe because of seeing one of my former SNL character nemeses, Regine, get accidentally doused with a glass of what I hope was SUPER chilly white wine, this episode was probably my favorite of the season.
1. The Barden Bellas ft. The Treblemakers, "Riff Off: Mickey/Like A Virgin/Hit Me With Your Best Shot/S&M/Let's Talk About Sex/I'll Make Love To You/Feels Like The First Time/No Diggity" (Pitch Perfect)
Pitch Perfect, Kay Cannon's comedy about college a cappella groups, has quickly established itself as a cult hit worthy of sitting alongside slumber party classics like Bring It On, Empire Records, and Grease. Personally, even the best a capella rendition of a song just makes me want to listen to the actual song. Of the various medleys and covers in Pitch Perfect, the sex song medley from the "Riff Off" sequence is the clear standout. And let's all just agree to put Rebel Wilson in everything from now on, OK?
Best YouTube Comment: "idk about anyone, but I got really excited when Ester Dean (Cynthia Rose) sang S&M…considering it's her song that she wrote for Rihanna" — Kaylaa1DAllstar
Surprise, surprise: Very few people said the words "I simply must go see the disgraced former governor of California palling around with a dude who used to get his nuts Tasered on a regular basis" this weekend. In other words: The Last Stand, Arnold's big post– politics and secret-love-child-with-nanny return to the multiplex, flopped at the box office, managing only $6.3 million and a 10th-place finish. My opinion? Johnny Knoxville should have been wearing a dumber hat.
With this year's Oscar nominees snubs, an atypically cohesive consensus has already formed, at least within the Best Director category: no Quentin Tarantino? No Ben Affleck?! No Kathryn Bigelow?!!
Yesterday, attempting to make sense of the peculiarity of the field, our own Wesley Morris wrote, "[the nominated directors'] movies contain no unresolved moral messes for an audience to wrestle with, unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, which has been dogged by the torture question ... There are even greater terrors in Django Unchained, but I think the older white men of the directors branch didn't find Tarantino's slaughter of slave owners palatable enough to commend him for it ... Plus, if Django would have waited six or seven years, he could have just been freed by Lincoln. As for Ben Affleck, I think he's made directing look too easy for himself."
But knowing a nation of critics is scratching its heads is small solace for not getting a shot at cuddling up in bed with a shiny new Oscar. So how are our snubbed directors taking it?
Of the characteristics that would appear on a list of Things We Like in a Great Director, "looking nice" would rank very low. But sometimes the threshold is violated in a way that's compelling enough that you have to stop and ask how someone of such excellent vision could travel the world looking very much the opposite of visually excellent. Yet for about the last month, this is where we've been with Quentin Tarantino, who's been everywhere but the Children's Television Workshop talking, in his coked-up-sounding way, about filmmaking and American slavery and his movies. The occasion is Django Unchained, which is a hit in all the ways a director hopes his movie is a hit — with movie critics, moviegoers, and the people who nominate movies for awards.
To promote the film, however, Tarantino has been dressing down. Way down. Like pusher-in-the-alley down.
A new year, a new start for the Hollywood Prospectus Podcast! Or, at least, a new microphone for me. Otherwise it was business as usual as Chris Ryan and I reminisced over how we spent our winter vacation: reading mystery novels (including Len Deighton's Game, Set, Match trilogy and Dashiell Hammett's super trill Red Harvest) and almost dying together by falling from the upper decks of Brooklyn's new Barclays Center.
But the biggest topic left over from 2012 was Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (11:30). After being goaded into seeing the film over the weekend by our producer, David Jacoby, I was primed to djargue about morality, responsibility, and a certain director's Aussie accent, but we soon circled back to another favorite from last year, Zero Dark Thirty (28:00), and the limitations of revenge. We wrapped up with a look ahead to January TV (36:15), including the arrival of Patton Oswalt on Justified and the continued unhappiness of Chris's no. 1 gal Lady Edith on Downton Abbey. Is it a spoiler if I confess that we're happy to be back?
Justin Bieber tweeted a vague apology after TMZ published photos of him with a "smoldering blunt." While some fans cast the eye of shade on Bieber’s “BFF” Lil Twist, others are taking this opportunity to air their beliebs that “weed is not the devil” and that Justin has as much right to a Funyun party of one as anyone else.
2013 is going to be incredible, if for no other reason than because this will undoubtedly be the year the cultural discourse shifts from simple discussions of "race" or "racism" to the majestic land of "how we talk about and react to race in mixed settings." While ideas of a "post-racial" society are but a single cute step below thinking the world was going to end on December 21 on the "awwww, that's cute" scale, what we are in 2013 is post–"race and things typically associated with a single race existing only within that racial silo." Finally.
As 2012 came to a close, a few things in the media's racial-discourse sphere took place that hinted the cup was set to runneth over. In December, we had a black sports commentator call a black quarterback essentially "not black enough," and the result was supporters of all races coming to the defense of the Third Griffin, telling this black commentator that he had no right to define what was black. And then, to top it off, he was reprimanded by his superiors, many of whom are white. Bonkers. In the past, passing judgment on a matter like this, whether against or in favor, could really only come from other esteemed blacks, because who else had the right to comment on what was "black" and what was not? That, as was made evident, is no longer the case.
With Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's gone back-to-back on the "messy, brilliant revenge-fantasies where the operative word is 'fantasy'" projects. Both times out, Tarantino has explained, he was reacting to a monolith of dusty historical-fiction flicks presenting only the victimization of the oppressed peoples in question. But instead of plucking anything from any number of well-documented tales of defiance and revolt, QT went ahead and made up his revenge whole-cloth. The results are way more entertaining, and way trickier to parse.