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Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Django Unchained,’ ‘Two Popes,’ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’

This week, Mark York and Nitish Vaidyanathan review ‘Django Unchained,’ ‘Two Popes,’ and ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’

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Recommend movies for us to watch using this form, which is also embedded at the bottom of our article.

Intro:

Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times! 

Django Unchained” (Released in 2012; watched by us on May 4, 2020)

A western action film by Quentin Tarantino. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

We have, at long last, revisited Quentin Tarantino after our mixed — and surprisingly uncontroversial — reactions to “Inglourious Basterds.” And today, we will not only discuss Tarantino’s strange directorial stylings (which I have always struggled with), but the uncomfortable issue of slavery as well. This, dear reader, is a difficult review to write as it is … can we go back to animation? 

I do not mind the challenge, however. Because, as far as silver linings go, I can say that “Django Unchained” is a very good movie. I like it very much. 

Set in the deep south before the Civil War, this modern-day spaghetti western follows Django, a slave who finds himself under the apprenticeship of Dr. King Schultz. a German bounty hunter. In exchange for Django’s help, Schultz grants Django his freedom, then assists him in a dangerous mission: to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from the merciless plantation owner, Calvin Candie. 

My good colleague, Nitish (despite his very lackluster opinions on “Secret of NIMH”… and I insist on fighting him about that) has many brilliant points about Tarantino. And he’s summed up my thoughts perfectly: “style over substance.” But this is not necessarily bad. I had issues with “Inglourious Basterds” — and, to an extent, “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” — because the style got in the way of the narrative. While there is an abundance of skill and craft in these pictures which I cannot help but appreciate, I often leave the experience without having felt anything. But not here. 

While Tarantino tends to spread his films thin — focusing on multiple and tangentially related plot lines — “Django Unchained” keeps its story simple. We have two main protagonists to follow, with one narratively supporting the other. We have one main villain (well, technically two). And everybody involved is unified in the plot by one goal, either as an asset or an obstacle. Telling one story, and focusing on telling it to the best of your ability, is more effective than trying to tell three or four lackluster ones. It seems simple in hindsight, but the difference is staggering. Here, the style — all these cool shots, those over-the-top zoom-ins, and yes, even the constant and unapologetic violence — feels as though it is aiding the story, and not taking away from it. 

What I was initially a bit more conflicted on, however, was the movie’s depiction of slavery. “Django Unchained” makes no secret of its revisionist nature, though it seemed off-putting to witness these real and very touchy issues depicted in such fantastical ways. It’s one thing to see a bunch of Nazis get inhumanely and gruesomely slaughtered through the lens of moviemaking magic … it’s another to see it happen to slaves. 

And I get that it is meant to be horrific. That is the point. And to be fair, most of the killing is dedicated to the slave-owners. But is seeing a fictionalized version of real historical violence (and listening to enough N-words to make Mark Twain have second thoughts) doing more harm than good? To be honest, I still have not made up my mind, but as I lingered on the idea I began to think of counter-arguments that I think are worth considering. Tarantino uses filmmaking as a weapon — and here, it is aimed at the Confederate, slave-owning south. 

The director himself has said, “I wanted to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like Spaghetti Westerns” and to “deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.” This helped put things in context for me. 

The western genre is controversial nowadays. The cowboy story is largely responsible for an overtly rosy tint on America’s darkest periods, and has contributed to the villianification of indigenous peoples. I do not enjoy bringing these up — I enjoy westerns very much! And right now, I feel I am that guy who walks into Disneyland only to pester the kids about how good ol’ uncle Walt may have been a Nazi. But despite their problems, westerns have been undeniably effective in capturing the hearts of audience members. The image of a lone cowboy standing off against some despicable baddies is an attractive one. There is a reason the cowboy has crammed his way into the pop-culture sphere. 

But here, Tarantino uses the same tools that have arguably alienated America’s minority populations to instead prop them up. Tarantino takes what is normally used as a celebration of America’s past to instead criticize it. We see the slave owners of our history as the western villains … the savage, irredeemable baddies that we want Django to take down. I believe it is effective to see these oft-ignored figures of history on the silver screen, dancing around as walking, bigoted bullseyes. 

I see now what Quentin Tarantino is going for with the power of filmmaking. It is a glorious craft; it is a powerful tool. And by tightening up his script — I would argue, more than he usually does — I believe his unique style and outlook has reached the utmost potential. I guess a good script really does help. 

Plus, it has its own western theme song, which makes everything better. I want my own western theme song. Is that in the budget, editors? 

Nitish:

I’ll start off with the uncontroversial: Mark should also have his own western theme song. 

Now to the controversial, which in this movie, is everything else. “What’s the controversy?” you might ask. “What’s so controversial about a spaghetti western romance movie about a bounty-hunting former slave trying to reunite with his lost love by pretending to be a slaver himself, directed by a white man whose movies are famous for playing fast and loose with historical events and eschewing nuance entirely and who wrote himself a part in his most famous movie where he repeatedly used the N-word?” You pause for a second, then nod your head: “oh that controversy.” 

After watching this movie, I’m not any clearer. I get the feeling that I’m supposed to have a strong opinion on this movie, but I am having trouble figuring out what my opinion is. Reader, I’m flummoxed. 

I’ll start off with the basic stuff. This movie is directed well. Django is one of Tarantino’s better characters, and he’s portrayed skillfully by Jamie Foxx. It is unsurprisingly easy to root for a former slave as he hunts down his past abusers in order to rescue his wife who was sold into slavery as a comfort woman. Cristoph Waltz does that thing he does where he’s impeccably polite and classy and kills people on a moment’s notice, except this time he’s nominally a good guy. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a chilling, maniacal performance as a cruel plantation owner. Kerry Washington also gives a great performance, but it is unfortunately underutilized. 

There are also some weirdly funny scenes. There’s a great moment where a bunch of guys in white hoods armed with torches attempt to attack our protagonists but they descend into an argument about how the eyeholes were cut too small. There are some scenes of cathartic violence, like any of the myriad scenes where Jamie Foxx paints the walls of the set with ketchup, simulating the blood and guts of slavers. 

And I’ll give Tarantino credit: I think he is making a sincere effort to grapple with the violence of slavery. Some of the most harrowing moments of the movie feature the brutal treatment of slaves, like when Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has her scars exposed at the dinner table as a sort of cocktail party form of entertainment. I’m from Richmond, Virginia, where confederate monuments still litter our streets. I never thought I’d write these words, but it was honestly refreshing to see Tarantino’s portrayal of violence in this movie. He depicted slavers as brutal sadists, after I’ve spent a lot of my life walking around a city where they’re depicted in white marble. 

But in my opinion, Tarantino’s style really mucks up his ability to tackle the thematic pieces he’s interested in. His violent set pieces are so ridiculously over the top that it actually deteriorates some of the good, important work he’s doing in showing the systematic violence that black individuals were impacted by. The characters are caricatured to the point that they lose their thematic utility. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is so over the top in his megalomania that it begins to feel like there’s no way that a human being could have actually acted like that. That’s a big problem, because lots of people did act like that. Nuance, believe it or not, is important. And Tarantino predictably throws it out the window. I’d encourage you to read this piece by Lonnie Bunch about the way that slavery is portrayed in this movie. Merely showing us the fact that violence was perpetrated against slaves isn’t sufficient; Tarantino also had to contextualize it. 

And I’ve just learned that Tarantino apparently manufactured certain types of violence. The “Mandingo Fights,” where slaves from different plantations were forced to fight to the death, apparently didn’t actually happen. Folks, if a director feels the need to add more brutality to slavery, then they’ve badly missed the mark. So scratch that bit about sincerity. 

Another significant piece that Tarantino fails at is giving Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda something meaningful to do. She functions as a stereotypical damsel in distress for the entire movie. Her obstacles are just as severe as Django’s (if not more), and it’s a shame that she doesn’t get a larger chunk of the movie. 

So this movie is a failure of historiography. What’s left? Tarantino attempts to forge Django into a sort of mythical character, “the fastest gun in the south.” And I think he succeeds in this. Django is an engaging character, and he’s made all the more entertaining by Tarantino caricaturing the rest of the world that he occupies. Despite the weird tonal mishmash that goes on between the horrific violence that actually occurred and the ridiculous set pieces that look like something out of “Kill Bill,” this movie is still pretty watchable, with a nice conclusion where the hero saves the girl. But that feels wrong to me. From my perspective, turning one of America’s greatest historical crimes into the set of a shoot-em-up, even if the shoot-em-up doesn’t shy away from showing the extent of the crimes, is not a good idea. I can imagine a version of this movie that worked a lot better, but it needed far more nuanced and capable hands than Quentin Tarantino’s. That being said, I think you should watch it to judge for yourself. 

Two Popes” (Released in 2019; watched by us on May 13, 2020)

A biographical drama film by Fernando Meirelles. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Here we have another reader recommendation with the Netflix original “Two Popes,” which was an enjoyable look into one of our globe’s most sacred figures — well, two of them, as a matter of fact. 

This movie is based on a real story, taking us back to the aftermath of the Vatican leaks scandal of 2012, which led (among many things) to the unprededented resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. He, believing that his leadership will only drag down the church — or perhaps, just being sick of the position — plans on passing the role to his more progressive frenemy, Cardinal Bergoglio. The issue is, now he actually has to convince Bergoglio to agree. 

I, personally, am not so familiar with the religion. My church-going memories mostly consist of watching “VeggieTales” with the staff of my local church, as I would get bored too easily … I wish I could say my attention span has gotten better since. Even as I write this review I am paranoid about getting some terms mixed up, and probably getting smited during my morning walk as a result. Religion was something I never considered myself all that interested in. For this reason, I was surprised with how engaged I was in the film’s depiction of the Vatican. The philosophes, the architecture, the traditions and the lifestyles of the clergy’s highest figures are given incredible detail. The very beginning of the movie, particularly focusing on the election of Pope Benedict, was so lifelike in fact, that I initially thought this movie was going to be a documentary. As the story went on, I grew to feel as though I knew these two men intimately, and that I understood how weighty Benedict’s resignation really was. I didn’t know any of this stuff before, but it’s fascinating stuff! 

Yet, I am also aware of some of the criticism following this movie. Many claim “Two Popes” was too friendly with its depiction of Pope Benedict. After all, the church had carried out some egregious things during his leadership, and even with my lack of awareness of the event itself (again, “VeggieTales”) I felt as though the narrative brushed over a few important things. In some respects, this was inevitable. The movie requires a great amount of access into the clergy, and likely needed to pull some punches in order to maintain that. On a more cynical note, Netflix most likely would like to avoid alienating the papacy’s enormous following in order to … um, keep getting subscribers. Still, I can understand how it might be off-putting to some to see Pope Benedict as a loveable old-fashioned grandpa, or Pope Francis as this sort of saint (no pun intended). 

Then again, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play their respective parts as grandpa and saint masterfully, truly carrying this character study from good to great. While some might be disappointed that “Two Popes” eventually became what I could consider to be a buddy comedy (I mean, that label is not entirely appropriate, but it does end with the two literally eating chicken wings while watching a soccer game), I can not help but speak from my own perspective. As somebody with a lack of relationship with religion (having neither any outwardly positive or negative memories with the church) I was intrigued enough by the movie’s phenomenal direction, engaged enough with what I’ve learned about the papacy, and charmed enough by these two characters simply discussing interesting ideas and hanging out with each other. 

I understand, this movie could have been more — and if that is what you are expecting, dear reader, then you deserve more. I hope you get that one day. But, to me, “Two Popes” breaks the mold simply by humanizing what I initially felt to be unapproachable figures. If that was all there was to the movie, that would be enough for me to recommend it, but there is some excellent filmmaking tying it all together too. Keep what I’ve said in mind, but definitely give it a watch. This is one of my favorite movies of 2019. 

Nitish:

Netflix’s “Two Popes” is a good movie. It’s an intriguing tale of a 2,000-year-old religion undergoing a tectonic shift in leadership in a new, rapidly secularizing era. The movie focuses on the personal relationship between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, played by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce respectively. It hints at larger questions about institutional decay, sin and faith in a modern world, but I think it doesn’t tackle these with the level of depth that I would have liked. “Two Popes” is a well-constructed character study, and deserves your attention for that much, but I don’t think it takes the next step that would have made it a truly great movie. 

I’ll start with, well, the “Two Popes.” They’re played very well by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, two very skilled actors who bring a human face to individuals who some consider infallible. Pryce gives Pope Francis the sort of kind-hearted grandpa vibe that Pope Francis has become known for, with his love of soccer and pizza. However, Pryce is, frankly, outshone by Hopkins’ performance. Hopkins creates a very interesting Pope Benedict, with a serene authority and hints of anger. As the movie progresses, Pope Benedict’s tone starts to shift and Hopkins artfully adds depth to his portrayal. Hopkins’ portrayal is subtle and rich, and Pope Benedict feels like a fascinating tragic character. Both characters are well constructed and convincing. The script is tight, and it makes their friendship feel organic and real. This friendship is the core of the movie. 

A significant piece of the movie’s runtime is devoted to giving Pope Francis, then Jose Bergoglio, a backstory. This backstory discusses his actions during the Argentine dictatorship, and his misgivings over the way that he tried to navigate the ethical quandaries of keeping his head down to help people and being more open and aggressive with his support. This is an incredible story, one that I had no idea about. Its retelling is acted and written well. But I do think that it could have been used in a more effective way. The story is introduced as a cut-away from a question from Pope Benedict, and the thematic import is really undercut. Imagine that you and I are having a personal disagreement, I start to explain how the values that I am acting on right now were informed by a traumatic experience from my past, and then I pull out a computer and show you a well-produced video with paid actors standing in for other characters. This may seem like a kind of strange critique, but if you watch the movie I think you’ll agree that this really messes up the flow. A.O. Scott of The New York Times says that this movie would have been better if it was just the “Two Popes” talking, and I completely agree.

So now about the thematic stuff. This movie is a very good character study, but I think that the most interesting pieces of this movie are unfortunately underdeveloped. There is a fascinating moment where Pope Benedict reveals that he is having trouble hearing God, and it feels like that should have been a key thematic moment. It’s not ignored, but it doesn’t feel like it’s developed properly. There are a bunch of other moments like that: Something really interesting happens, but it just feels like it’s fodder for the relationship between the two men. The most egregious case of this is when the titular figures are discussing the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal, and we don’t actually get to hear anything that Pope Benedict says about the issue. It seems to be a tacit admission that the serious problems of sex abuse within the Catholic Church is less important to the story than is the relatively simple fact that the two figures spoke about it. I was not a fan. 

I think a lot of these issues could have been fixed by better structuring of the story. I would have focused on trying to juxtapose Bergoglio’s experiences in Argentina with Pope Benedict’s experiences with the church. There are moments where both doubt their faith, where both have to deal with corrupt institutions, where both are put into difficult ethical positions. I think that’s what the movie was going for, but they had pretty much all of Bergoglio’s backstory as a single chunk in the middle of the movie. By breaking it up and distributing parts of that story throughout the movie, you might have been able to pair some thematic elements together. 

But, yet again, I’m being too harsh. I think this was still an engrossing biopic, with good writing, good direction, and exemplary, subtle performance from one of acting’s greats. Definitely worth your time, but it wasn’t as “Road to Damascus” as I was hoping. 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (Released in 1986; watched by us on May 15, 2020)

A comedy film by John Hughes. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Dear reader, have you ever had one of those movies that you felt you knew before even watching it? You know, like a case of cinema deja vu? I know I’ve had my fair share of them. 

Actually, this has happened time and time again throughout this marathon, but it was especially strong with “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” There are so many iconic scenes, audio cues and lines that have burrowed their way into future film and television that even upon my first introduction, this movie felt familiar. But in a good way — like that cool best friend with the driver’s license and that authentic record player. This is, simply put, just such a well done comedy. 

Ferris Bueller is a scheming high school senior who, for the ninth time this semester, has decided to skip school in order to make the most out of his time before graduation. He also ropes in his stuck-up best friend Cameron and his girlfriend Sloane as he “borrows” Cameron’s father’s Ferrari and explores Chicago. All the while, his obsessive dean of students, Rooney, dedicates himself to capturing Bueller, while his sister attempts to bust him to their mother. The spirit of Candace Flynn from “Phineas and Ferb” is strong with this one. 

There are multiple different plot lines, sure, but they are converged around one main event … Ferris Bueller decides to skip school. It is an ingenious way to tie in a whole array of seemingly unrelated narratives (in a previous article I’ve written, I’ve referred to this technique as shish-kebab storytelling). But, these plot points are also brilliantly tied around a single theme: teen liberation! 

Jeanie (Bueller’s sister) goes from trying to push her brother back into the system to helping him slip away. Rooney represents the oppressive adult who tries to impose his will onto his students as the evident, and inarguably defeated, villain. Yet the heart of the story — through all the zaniness and swagger, which the story most certainly makes time for — is Cameron’s liberation from his toxic family. His character arc is by far the most dynamic. While his constant anxiousness and fear of his father is initially played for laughs, the script slowly peels back the layers of Cameron’s home life, revealing how tragic it really is. This makes his eventual breakdown, then rebirth, very satisfying. 

But Ferris Bueller himself shall not be ignored. While his best friend might have the meat of the character development, Bueller plays the stagnant protagonist in the best way — as an embodiment of the themes and feelings the movie wishes to convey. Ferris Bueller is rebellion and carries the story as a love letter to the power and freedom teens likely wish they have. He handles most situations with a steady head and a good sense of humor, as though the city of Chicago itself is wrapped around his finger. His constant breaking of the fourth wall — while also a very effective and engaging directorial gimmick — adds to the apparent power he seems to wield. He is the character that inspires everybody else … and me as well! I too wish to crawl out of my window during my lectures. 

Granted, it would be hard to hijack a parade given our current circumstances, but you know what I mean. That “Twist and Shout” sequence, by the way, is one of the most stressful scenes I’ve witnessed in the wake of social distancing. These people are NOT standing six feet apart! 

I’ve … gotten side-tracked. My apologies, dear reader, a tight comedy is very difficult to talk about without spoiling the jokes (which is, you know, kind of the point). But, I believe I’ve gotten my point across. This movie is a product of the rebellious, teen-spirit 80s in all the best ways, and it put a smile on my face throughout its entire runtime — even as I am currently cramming for my midterm! And with repeated viewings, I am confident that smile will not be playing hookie anytime soon. 

Nitish:

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a sort of high-school masterpiece about a young man who decides to take a day off. It’s snappy, crisply written and well-directed. It will keep a smile on your face throughout its runtime. I first watched this movie in high school, when our school gave the senior class the morning off and bused us to a movie theater. I didn’t think there was a whole lot of depth there. But now when I watch the movie again (and read Mark’s thoughts on it) I’m inclined to view the movie a lot more charitably, and I honestly enjoyed it quite a bit more the second time around. It has problems, but the execution of the movie makes up for them. 

First off, the writing is just so clean. Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller is endlessly charismatic, and he delivers his lines with a breezy attitude that makes you like him and root for him almost instantly. School is portrayed as dreary, oppressive and mind-numbing. There are a bunch of little pieces to how they sell this, but one of my favorites is the performance of the history teacher. Although unnamed, the teacher delivers a flat and toneless monologue, asking questions of his captive audience (“Anyone? Anyone?”), but drudging right along to the next point without pause for anyone to answer. It’s Soviet in a way: The teachers pretend to teach, the students pretend to learn. The evil empire of education is helmed by the conniving and mustached Ed Rooney (played by Jeffrey Jones), a principal who takes a type of perverse joy in the prospect of being able to ruin Ferris’ future. It’s no wonder that Ferris, our heroic rebel, decides to leave school in search of more enjoyable pastures. 

Ferris Bueller’s schemes at having fun are engaging and clever. They’re not the focus of the movie, and they’re not these super elaborate “Ocean’s 11” type plots with dozens of moving parts. Instead, they’re relatively simple, and they feel distinctly achievable. If only the viewer had the love of life to spend a day out of school, they too could lick their palms in order to get sick enough to stay out of school but not sick enough to get sent to the hospital. 

I used to think that this movie’s character work was pretty weak, but after watching it again and reading what Mark wrote, I think it’s a lot better than I gave it credit for. Cameron seems like the real protagonist, with quiet but significant obstacles to overcome. We’re told from the outset that Cameron’s home life isn’t great, but we’re slowly drip-fed evidence of a broken home and a neglectful and abusive father. At the start of the movie, Cameron is practically scared of his own shadow, and he has a long debate in his car as to whether or not he should spend the day outside. By the end of the movie, he begrudgingly admits that it was the best day of his life, and he intends to seize autonomy back from his father. Ferris Bueller is stagnant, as Mark says, but I think he’s almost more of a sort of force of rebellion than an actual person. While he’s an engaging character in his own right, his greatest contribution to the movie in terms of narrative is the effect that he has on others. 

This movie has problems though. If the narrative goal is to show that enjoying life can lead to freedom, it’s made a little hollow by the fact that we’re dealing with a trio of white teenagers in the top 10% of income distribution doing whatever they want with total impunity. Cameron’s struggles are hinted at, but the resolution seems implausible, and Ferris’ actions also seem selfish in reflection. The foundation of all good character work comes from showing us that actions have consequences, and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” goes out of its way to show that actions don’t have any consequences. The film, at its core, is a privileged teenager’s fantasy with a caricatured evil principal and a teenage hero who triumphs over boredom with a banal, lackadaisical attitude towards the world. Ferris’ spirit of rebellion is a child’s view of freedom, where it simply means the ability to avoid adults telling you what to do. The whole thing is just immature. The more you think about this movie, the more it deteriorates. 

So my advice: Don’t think about it. Putting aside these flaws, this movie is just enjoyable. It’s fun, well acted and the dialogue is exceptionally well written. It’s teenage lightning in a bottle, the distillation of a 13-year-old’s fantasy into a lean, funny movie. This movie is almost PG-rated Tarantino, with loads of style and the illusion of substance. So watch it for the style. But if you want a teenage story with a little more meat on its bones, I’d recommend “Lady Bird.”

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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