Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Django Unchained


I’m completely enamored with the artistic aptitude of Quentin Tarantino. Always have been. I’ve seen his body of work many times over, and have yet to find a film that I didn’t love. So when it was announced all those months ago that Tarantino was going to make a slavery-set Western, I was game. Months ticked away, excitement mounted, and finally, on Christmas day, I sat in a sold out theater, completely spellbound for 165 minutes of film. During which, I never let myself forget that what I was seeing so highly surpassed my wildest expectations. And I ask, is there anything better than that?

If you’ve browsed the Internet at all in the past week, you’ve likely come across arguments from both sides: those in steadfast admiration for Tarantino’s latest, and those staunchly against it. I’m obviously in the former, and for those in the latter, I can only offer a paltry fair enough. I’ve never viewed a Tarantino film that was liked by all or hated by most. The man thrives on controversy; he lives to tell familiar stories in wholly unique ways. His game is to unsettle, and entertain. Two things Django Unchained captures perfectly.
Early in the film, Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter played perfectly by Christoph Waltz, rescues slave Django (Jamie Foxx), and hires him to help catch his latest bounty. And after some schooling, dressing, and mannering, Schultz and Django begin a fruitful bounty hunting partnership. They hunt, they kill, they collect. When their hunting is finished, Django has plans of rescuing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from sadistic plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCpario). Intrigued by the idea of instilling further good, Schultz elects to help Django in his daring mission of romance.

Now, this being the world of Tarantino, you can be damn sure that a paragraph of plot analysis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, and that’s okay. Mr. Tarantino is a far more talented writer than myself, and his words are best discovered the way they are meant: from the characters themselves. And holy shit if we don’t have some great ones here.

With his animalistic methods of hunt and his moralistic views motivated by money, Waltz’s Schultz reminded me of a distant relative of the actor’s Hans Landa, who he portrayed in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Don’t get me wrong, Schultz’s sensibilities are far more delicate than Landa’s but the point is, this is another fully realized character from Christopher Waltz. Same for DiCaprio’s Candie, which is so far and away from anything the actor has played that I sat literally stunned by his work. Whether he’s mercilessly enjoying watching two black fighters beat each other to death, or ordering a slave to be mauled to death by a dog, Candie is a vile, disgusting man, and DiCaprio plays him convincingly, to a ferocious T.
Speaking of disgusting, a few weeks before this film was released, Samuel L. Jackson said he wanted his character, Stephen, to represent the most despicable black character ever depicted in film. Damn close. Stephen is the head house slave for Candie’s main plantation, dubbed “Candieland.” So, in effect, Stephen’s allegiance is first and only to his master. All others, including those of color, can be goddamned (and are).

While those three actors have been dominating the press surrounding this film, specific mention needs to be given to Jamie Foxx, for making Django’s character arc so believable. When we meet him, he’s a scared shitless slave without a purpose. But as his courage builds and his confidence peaks, Django becomes a new man. And when he’s forced to push his bravado dangerously further, it’s important to clarify that this is Jamie Foxx playing Django playing Django. It’s a performance within a performance, and we’re continually on edge as to whether Django (or is it Jamie…?) will forget that.

Much has been made on the fact that Django Unchained is a movie about slavery made by a white man. I’m not qualified to speak on the merits of artistic expression as it relates to race, but I will say that Django Unchained is a film rooted in an ugly American truth. It doesn’t shy away from showing how awful it was (and how despicable many of us were). It’s a fascinating, historical examination of one of the darkest of American hours, with a little pulp fiction mixed in for good measure.
Moving on from that, there’s an action climax in this film that involves a lot of shooting, a lot of killing, and a lot of expert slow motion. Through much of it, the James Brown/2Pac mashup “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” booms over the soundtrack. And it was during this sequence that I noticed something quite profound. I picked up my dropped jaw and took myself out of the film for a spilt second, telling myself that This. This is why you love movies. Playing a James Brown/2Pac song in a slavery movie should work about as well as playing a David Bowie song in a World War II epic, which is to say, not at all. Yet in does, gloriously.

Django Unchained could arguably end after that segment, which, for a moment, I thought it had. Thankfully, it does not. In that flawless, uniquely Tarantino way, the director had a lot more to show us. Which I certainly hope is the case for many years to come. A

34 comments:

  1. Despite the awful experience of watching the film and then having the screen go blank 2 hours into the movie. I still sat for 25 minutes for the screen to come back just to see how it ended.

    I'm not sure where I would rank this with QT's other films but it's certainly one of his best.

    If I was to make a list of the best characters Tarantino has created, Dr. King Schultz would be in that list. I am definitely rooting for Christoph Waltz to get another Oscar because he's so damn good in this film and his chemistry with Jamie Foxx was something unexpected. They were the highlight of the film for me.

    My favorite scene in that film is a very tense scene involving all of the principle characters where it's a scene about humanity and honor. Candie, played with great gusto by diCaprio, wants to seal the deal but Schultz is hesitant because of what has transpired.

    That's a moment I feel like QT is starting to get better not just as a writer but as a filmmaker. I definitely await for what he does next.

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    1. Holy fuck man, if the screen cut out during a QT movie, I'd about flip shit. That is horrendous. Sorry that happened to you.

      Waltz was perfect yet again, and I agree, his chemistry with Foxx was remarkable. It was like they had known each other for years.

      That scene was so unbearably tense. A definite highlight of the film. Glad you liked this one as much as I did!

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    2. Yeah, the only other time that happened to me was when the sound went out during a pivotal moment in Brokeback Mountain where I couldn't hear anything properly for 20 minutes. At least I got a free pass which I used for Match Point.

      With Django, I used the free pass for Les Miserables.

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    3. Well hey, free tickets certainly aren't a bad thing, but still, shit like that completely takes you out of the movie, which is a damn shame.

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  2. You just don't understand how jealous I am that you got to see this! I was supposed to yesterday, but my date got sick and wanted me to wait for the weekend. No seriously, I am jealous! This has been my most anticipated movie of the year.
    I kind of just brush off the critics' comments in regards to QT's use of the "n" word (Spike Lee most of all, despite my love for ol' Spike) or his handling sensitive historical material. They all feel so creatively stifling.
    Really hoping Tarantino doesn't retire soon as he said he would. He has yet to churn out a bad movie imo (Django and Inglorious are still on my watch list though).
    I'll be commenting on this again when I see the film!

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    1. Oh man, you are a damn fine date in that case. Ha. Nothing stops me from QT. I was seeing this on opening day come hell or high water. But shit man, hope it lives up to your expectations.

      I too brush off the people who are critical of QT for those reasons. It's actually a non issue to me, but whatever. Christ, I hope he doesn't retire soon as well, that'll be awful.

      Can't wait to hear what you think!

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    2. Lol yeah, I think I need to evaluate my priorities.

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    3. Ha. Keep on pushin', my friend. You'll see it soon enough!

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    4. Nice man. And yeah... wow, indeed.

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  3. pretty certain this is going to be the greatest movie of all time...

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    1. Ha, it's a damn fine film, my friend. Definitely in my Top 5 of the year. A fantastic achievement.

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  4. Beautiful post! You really knocked it out of the ballpark with your writing and analysis. I am definitely looking forward to this movie.

    In terms of the history, it's interesting that this movie presents a somewhat nuanced view of the era of slavery. I'm referring to what you said about Samuel L. Jackson's character. One of many things history books don't explore is that fact that this issue was not always divided along racial lines -- there were even some black slave owners. I always appreciate a book or film that does justice to a complex issue. Human nature is messy and complicated and doesn't lend itself to straightforward explanations.

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    1. Aw thanks so much!

      You know, I have to hand it to QT, he's been getting so much shit for his characters using the n-word in this movie (a word that I detest, but, in the context of this film, is historically accurate), and instead of telling those people off, he's taking the humble route. For instance, if I were him, I'd definitely blast my critics and ask them how many times they've seen an Uncle Tom like Jackson's character portrayed in film? Django Unchained really does do the holocaust of slavery justice. It doesn't turn its back on it at all.

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  5. yay! i liked it too! You're right--you either love or hate tarantino movies. but you're always fascinated by them.

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  6. Great review. Waltz, DiCaprio, Foxx, and Jackson were all brilliant, but Waltz stole the show for me once again. Going in, I was fully expecting to be blown away by DiCaprio's performance (which didn't disappoint by any means), but there's just something about Waltz's impeccable delivery that made me say, "wow this guy is really effin' good".

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    1. Hell yeah man. Waltz just killed it here. That whole hand shaking bit toward the end... it was just devastating to watch. I knew where it was going, but goddamn, both those actors crushed it.

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  7. Nice review man. Loved it as well. It's finely crafted, brilliantly acted, and quite ballsy. I think it's his best film since Jackie Brown, actually. Don't know what will come of it at the Oscars, but I hope it gets some love.

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    1. Thanks man! What's funny about the Oscars is that it's going to be another Bigelow vs. QT affair. Or rather, Mark Boal vs. QT. Both will be the frontrunners for Original Screenplay, I think. But we shall see!

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  8. Funny, tense, non-PC, and wholly original what more could I ask from a Tarantino outing? What struck me most was how Slavery was depicted, I don't think there has ever been a film that portrays just how that dark spot on America's history was not just man's inhumanity to man, but an institution, from top to bottom, that continually warped the minds of Master and Slave alike. To the point where fighting the bloodiest war on American soil became the only option to remove it. Aside from that Foxx gets the role of his career, DiCaprio finally gets to cut lose in a role, Waltz has become an automatic watch for me and Jackson just makes the role his own. A spectacular bloody way to end a great 2012 movie season.

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    1. Hell yeah man! Great comment here, one I couldn't agree more with. You pointed out exactly why I don't understand the main criticism against this film (which is QT's oft use of the n-word)... botton line, the dude made a slavery film like no other. In all its grittiness, he's released something painful and real. It's a goddamn fine accomplishment, and yes, a perfect way to end the year.

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  9. Excellent post, I really need to see this.

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  10. I can't wait to see it, it's going to come out in cinemas soon here. As cheesy as it sounds, I am rooting for an Oscar for poor Leonardo DiCaprio, he's been desperate for one for such a long time, I think it's his time! And I'm sure he deserves it more than Alan Arkin (actually, if Arkin wins anything big I will be furious)

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    1. I really hope you like this one! An Oscar for DiCaprio here is something I am completely for. He is remarkable. And yeah, nothing against Arkin, but his praise for Argo is something I'm not fully understanding. I mean... what did he do there?

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  11. I gave the movie strong 8. It was great when Waltz, Leo and Jackson were on screen but I was disappointed with the casting of Foxx. The film fell apart for me in 3rd act except for shoot outs. Django was the weakest of QT protagonists for me - I read QT wanted to cast Elba but decided not to because Elba....is British. I'm quite appalled by his reasoning especially since with Elba this film could have been up there with Ingloriuous Basterds as QT's second best.

    I still can't decide whether I like Leo or Walt'z work better. They were both so incredible.

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    1. Honestly, by this point, I've heard so much about the casting of Django, that I don't even know what to believe. I recently saw QT on Charlie Rose and he said that while he considered many, once he met Foxx, everything clicked into place. Sorry you didn't dig his work, I thought he was rather remarkable, but either way, Leo, Waltz and Jackson killed it.

      I don't know who's better either... that's some of the finest work Leo has ever done, and Waltz was just so... Waltz. Great work there.

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    2. I think the only reason I'm not rooting for Waltz to actually win for this is because he already has an Oscar and there is no way Academy will award him again so soon :(

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    3. Yeah, you're right. I'm trying to think who'd I'd love to have nab Supporting Actor this year...guess I'll have to wait for the noms tomorrow.

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  12. This was released in Australia yesterday, so I saw it immediately. If only life wasn't in the way so I could see it again and again!

    QT creates such rich characters, and the actors invariably respond by giving close to career best performances.

    Waltz was perfect, Leo was amazing for his subtle work as much as the scenery-chewing, while Foxx was the glue that held it all together.

    I love a film that goes for gritty realism as much as the next person, but the beauty of Tarantino is that you never forget you're watching a good old-fashioned 'movie'.

    There were minor glitches for me - QT casting himself as an Aussie was a mis-step, and that entire scene didn't quite gel, while the Jonah Hill scene felt imported from another film. But even with the misfires, it's never less than engrossing.

    In summary, it wasn't perfect, but damn it was close to it.

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    1. This is awesome man, so glad you loved this one.

      "But the beauty of Tarantino is that you never forget you're watching a good old-fashioned 'movie'"... EXACTLY. He wants you to be acutely aware of that, always.

      I've been a rather big supporter for QT's acting work in the past. It's slight and silly, but he's always managed to crack me up (The Rapist in Planet Terror... jesus). But sadly, I agree with you on his role here. It was more of a distraction that anything else.

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    2. You're right, great use of 'acutely'. An example for me is when Django blows away Candie's sister. It's a pistol shot from above right, and really, she should just drop to the floor. Instead, she goes flying through mid-air out of screen, as if she's been shot by ten cannons! Great theatricality from a man who, as you put it, wants to entertain.

      Yep, I seem to recall reading you thoughts on QT's acting somewhere on here, and I've largely agreed. It was certainly a distraction in Django, but it was his way of paying homage to his long-held love for Australian 70's cinema, so we can at least forgive him the indulgence.

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    3. I've heard QT say there are two types of violence in the movie: the slave violence (the whipping, the dogs, the mandingo fight) and there's Django's violence, which is like Candie's sister getting blown the fuck away. I love that he feels it's appropriate to make room for both.

      And yeah, I'm willing to forgive the indulgence. But let's stay off the screen for now, QT.

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