Thursday, January 3, 2013

Django Unchained

Left to Right: Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx

*** out of ****

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film Django Unchained is something of a companion piece to his previous film, Inglourious Basterds. It is a period film exploiting a sensitive and shameful time in history for B-movie style entertainment. It also features the excellent Christoph Waltz who made a very strong impression in Basterds. This is the first Tarantino film to call itself a western, but the Spaghetti Western genre has been creeping into his movies for a long time now.

This film stars Jamie Foxx as a slave in the American South before the Civil War. His name is Django. He has just been freed and recruited by a bounty hunter named King Schultz (Waltz). Schultz is a German immigrant who hunts down dangerous felons with lots of money to earn for their corpses. He wants Django to help him identify a group of slavers on his list. He assures Django that when the job is all done, he will help him get back the wife who was taken away and sold-off long ago.

Django adapts to the Bounty hunting business naturally and proves to be a fast gun and clever business partner. When they eventually move to locating his wife, they encounter her new owner who proves to be a formidable obstacle. His name is Calvin Candie played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Leave it to Tarantino to ask pretty boy Leo to play someone absolutely deplorable. Candie utilizes his ownership of human beings in every imaginable way.

By this part, I realized I was watching Tarantino’s most offensive film ever. Aside from the use of the N-word having an exponential growth as the film moves, he is borrowing from awful stories of slavery and putting them in the context of a melodramatic American adventure story. I know this was to be expected, but I usually expect Tarantino to redeem himself after a savage exploitation. What really disappointed me was how I never truly felt a payoff to the revenge that naturally came next. The film is so filled with savage slave drivers and owners getting their comeuppance throughout, that it becomes gimmicky and redundant. By the film’s final act, I anticipated the direction it was taking and it just felt sloppy. Tarantino’s better than this.

There’s no denying that the movie starts off strong and has brilliant lines from beginning to end. Tarantino is one of America's few big name auteurs who can write and direct something that feels different from everything else you see. You know that his stories have an agenda of their own and you’re just not sure where they’re taking you. This was much more true of his vastly superior Inglourious Basterds.

One of many Tarantino trademarks is bringing back forgotten actors. The highlight to this one is Breaking Away star Dennis Christopher as Candie’s lawyer. The beautiful Kerry Washington plays Django’s wife Brunhilda (The name is amusingly explained in the film). Walton Goggins is uncreatively cast as a sadistic redneck –big surprise. Finally, Samuel L. Jackson puts on a deliberate minstrel show of a performance as Candie’s elderly head house slave, loyal to his master and treacherous to his fellow slaves. This is a great comic performance and an amazingly uncomfortable one.

My favorite scenes in the film are just between Foxx and Waltz. Foxx plays Django with curiosity, which grows to conviction as Schultz kindly shows him the trade of hunting bad men. Waltz, as always, plays with his accent and annunciation in a way that makes music out of Tarantino’s great monologues.

Robert Richardson brings the gorgeous cinematography we’ve come to expect in all his collaborations with this director. Shot on film with a scope lens and a beautiful color pallet, Django has a very energetic appearance.

While I enjoyed a lot of Django Unchained, it let me down and there’s still a feeling of disgust Tarantino wanted me to feel in the middle that I couldn't shake off when the good guy wins at the end. Although, this is the first of his films that I’ve sat down to write about -right after viewing, I must consider the rule I can apply to most Tarantino films: They get better the more times you watch them.

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