Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Django Unchained Movie Review

Quentin Tarantino likes to make movies that he would like to watch. Well, shouldn’t every filmmaker do the same? It’s widely known that Tarantino came up on movies by working in a video store and devouring all the trashy B-movies he could get his eyes on. All of his movies are basically slicked up versions of those same midnight and drive-in classics that were his film education. Spaghetti westerns have served as one of the largest influences on his movies, particularly the Mexican standoffs that tend to occur in the climaxes of films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. In the last decade he has specialized in revenge pictures, with Django Unchained being the latest, this time an American slave revenge fantasy in the style of a cheap spaghetti western.

A slick opening has Christoph Waltz as German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz confronting and killing two slave traders (James Russo and James Remar) and buying Django (Jamie Foxx), one of the slaves on a chain gang they’re leading through a darkened forest. Schultz’s interest in Django is that he can identify three brothers who have a rather large bounty on their heads. In return for his help, Django gets his freedom. It turns out Django also wants a little help tracking down his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave sold at auction to another plantation owner.

In Christoph Waltz, Tarantino has found an actor who can truly deliver his signature dialogue. John Travolta was nearly as good in Pulp Fiction. As Dr. King Schultz, Waltz demonstrates definitively that Hans Landa was no fluke. This guy can act. This guy, who was plucked from European cinema in middle age and turned into an Oscar-winning actor, embodies his characters so richly, so beautifully, he should be the star of every film Tarantino makes from now on. The success is not just in the acting, but also in Tarantino’s creation of a vibrant character. Dr. King Schultz is the best thing about Django Unchained. Well, him and Calvin Candie, the owner of the legendary plantation known as Candieland, and the place where they go to seek Broomhilda. As Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio handily rivals Waltz for the trophy of best actor ever in a Tarantino film. He is at once southern gentleman, benevolent owner of human beings, evil torturer, and violent miscreant.

As a modern spaghetti western, the film pulls out all the stops. It’s got original songs that sound like they were written in the 1960’s, it’s got heightened emotion, stylized camera movements, and a climactic gun battle that pours on the fake blood that, in keeping with the genre tradition, is far too red and syrup-like to truly resemble the real thing. In that respect, Django Unchained is unbridled excitement. It is downright fun and silly and endlessly enjoyable, even if it lacks the cathartic emotional payoff of the revenge story in Inglourious Basterds. Perhaps we’re too far removed from American slavery to feel that kick I felt watching Nazis get swastikas carved into their foreheads. Of course, I say this as a white man. The experience of Django Unchained may be quite different for someone who still lives day to day with the remnants of bigotry foisted upon us by institutionalized prejudice.

Even if Django Unchained is fun to watch, it still feels lazy by Tarantino standards. It’s more cobbled together than thought out and intricately structured. His best movies are tightly written: ReservoirDogs has unity of time and setting, focused exclusively on what did and didn’t happen surrounding a robbery we never see; Pulp Fiction gives us three stories woven together to make one story; Inglourious Basterds is built around four brilliantly executed set pieces fraught with breathtaking tension. Django doesn’t really exhibit any of that except in an early scene that establishes Schultz’s method of serving out his brand of justice and toying with white folks when he and Django sit themselves down in a bar before shooting the town sheriff down in the street, and then waiting for the Marshal to come. There is nothing else like this scene in the entire movie, which is sad because it showcases what Tarantino does best: building tension around a simple idea.

This movie feels either way too long (after the climactic and bloody gunfight at Candieland, the film continues on an additional twenty minutes) or completely unfinished. I was not surprised to learn that Tarnatino’s original draft for the film would play out in about four hours and that he wanted to release it, Kill Bill style, in two parts. But I can’t judge a film based on what the director would have like to do, but ultimately didn’t. I can only comment on what he actually put on the screen for me to see. That being the case, it comes off as sloppy Tarantino work. Some characters don’t feel fully realized. Chief among them is Broomhilda, who barely has any lines and almost no screen time at all with Django, her husband. Nor do we get to spend much time at another plantation, run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Here’s a guy I would have loved to get to know better, if only Tarantino weren’t in such a rush to leave behind characters that hint at something much greater.

All this is doubly true with Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Stephen the house slave, whose loyalties lie more with Candie than with fellow slaves. Despite some raves for Jackson’s performance, I found it uneven and striking completely wrong notes. It was far too full of exaggerated mannerisms, which may have been the result of poor direction. Also, I think he was miscast as a man meant to be about 25 years Jackson’s senior.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever get the chance to find out what a four hour Django Unchained looks like, except by reading the full script that’s available on line. Quentin Tarantino provided me the material in Pulp Fiction that made me fall in love with cinema. I’ve been waiting 18 years for its equal. Though he’s come close on occasion, his latest, while an entertaining romp, falls short of what we all know he’s capable of.

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