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Django Unchained

DJANGO Unchained finally sees Quentin Tarantino tackle the western after flirting with the genre in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. (The scene in which Christoph Waltz's Nazi "Jew-hunter" terrorizes a farm family is an overt homage to Sergio Leone's suspenseful staging of similar scenes in films such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West.)

As always with Tarantino, it is wildly referential, but the disparate references add up to something unique.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who finds himself suddenly free when he is rescued from a couple of slave traders by an unlikely saviour, Dr. King Shultz (Waltz again), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Shultz is tracking a trio of fraternal killers and he partners with Django, who can identify them. That goes well, and the two men form a formal partnership with the stipulation that Django will be free to pursue his own mission, to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the plantation of debauched southern aristocrat Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Tarantino loves to reward actors with their own wonderful scenes: DiCaprio offers an indelible portrait of villainy with a lecture on the bogus science of phrenology. As an elderly house slave who aids and abets Candie's genteel depravity, Samuel L. Jackson glowers over our hero with a discussion of the worst possible punishments. Waltz gets to exercise his considerable charm in a less unnerving context than his Nazi villain in Basterds. Even Don Johnson gets in on the act as a southern plantation owner caught in an outrageously comic debate on the design flaws of a Ku Klux Klan hood.

The only actor who doesn't really benefit from Tarantino's largesse with actors is the film's star. Foxx demonstrates some expert pistol play and guts when it comes to taking on some of the story's more outré moments, but he does not quite make Django the cool hero this movie deserves.

Like the "D" in Django, Foxx's star quality is silent.

DVD extras include docs on costume design and a homage to production designer J. Michael Riva, who died of a stroke during the film's production. 4/5

Antiviral

IF films and film franchises can be rebooted, why not film directors?

Antiviral announces the coming of Cronenberg Version 2.0 in the person of David Cronenberg's son, Brandon Cronenberg, who carries on the family tradition of cerebral body-horror his dad pioneered back in the '70s and '80s with films such as Scanners, The Fly and Videodrome. Since the elder Cronenberg has since turned away from the mutant milieu, Brandon steps in with Antiviral, a film that acts as a homage to his pop with its austere Toronto sets, character names that reek with significance (Hannah Geist?), and a perverse premise.

How strange that a film so painstakingly current would evoke outright nostalgia.

Antiviral is set in a contemporary kind of future in which celebrity worship has literally reached fever pitch. Clinics have popped up trading in celebrity viruses. If you really love a given star, you can pay to be infected by whatever microscopic malady they are carrying in order to feel the illusion of intimacy.

Such is the career of Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a virus trader who makes prospects believe that being infected with a star's case of herpes simplex is as good as sharing a lingering kiss.

But in a way, Syd isn't just a salesman at the club. He's a member: he routinely infects himself with celeb viruses and sells them on the black market. His heart (and other vulnerable organs) especially belongs to flawless blond superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), a Kardashian-like celebrity in that she is a willing partner in her own commodification. But suddenly, she suffers a particularly malignant virus that threatens to kill her, with Syd's likely demise to follow. To save his own life, Syd, growing ever sicker, must journey to the bottom of the celebrity worship pit if he can save his own life.

If Antiviral is a homage, it pays particular tribute to Videodrome (1983) with its woozy, hallucinogenic ambience and its double indictment of a corrupt media and an audience complicit in its own degradation. Like dad, Brandon can actually induce a kind of physical revulsion at times, not just with images but with ideas, which here includes a cannibalistic variation of the virus biz.

Caleb Landry Jones (the young actor who played Banshee in X-Men First Class) makes for a comically untrustworthy salesman, but he does convey an intensity that proves compelling.

The movie on the whole is an undeniably powerful first feature. It is also relentlessly derivative.

Brandon Cronenberg demonstrates he may have the talent to eventually leave his father's shadow. It remains to be seen if the inducement of originality is sufficient to make him venture outside that abiding paternal shade.

DVD extras include a making-of doc that suggest the junior Cronenberg is as socially awkward as the most Cronenbergian hero. 3/5

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2013 c16

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