Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Django Unchained (2012) dir. Quentin Tarantino

Hold on to your pretty pink bonnets, dear readers...

Django Unchained is the first Tarantino movie I have thoroughly enjoyed since Jackie Brown.  I mean, from start to finish I had a good time and I'd be willing to watch it again, hell, right now.

Now as we all know, as I have soap-boxed at length, I have had a lot of problems with Tarantino's last couple of films.  I went into Django Unchained with arms crossed, a big bowl of snark-covered popcorn and a large piss'n'vinegar (easy on the ice), ready to take a big ol'grumpy dump on this movie.  Then as the credits began rolling and I laughed smugly at the use of Bacalov & Rocky Roberts' Theme from Django (1966) I realized this was a good opening shot.  Wait, Morricone did some original music for the film?  What?  Wait, is this starting out as a good movie?

Now don't get your hopes up, Joshua.  Inglourious Basterds started off brilliantly too...

As Django Unchained progressed I felt myself both surprised and drawn in by the film.  I am a Jamie Foxx fan and I really dig Christoph Waltz and their on screen chemistry just worked.  It felt like a natural rapport.  I think I prefer the first half of the movie over the second but that's just me.  The first half develops nicely at its own pace with a good number of moments where Tarantino and director of photography Robert Richardson put down some classic shots which reminded me of movies I grew up on (e.g. Jeremiah Johnson  [1972]).  I'm kind of surprised one or two cues weren't used from Jeremiah Johnson but, meh, less than nit-pick.  It is kind of amazing what Tarantino and crew can do when they can sit and enjoy a comfortable silence with their audience.

The humor of the first half, one segment in particular, actually made me laugh.  In a strange way the humor reminds me of a warped version of the first half-hour of Blazing Saddles (the rail-way sequence of that movie remains one my favorites in all film comedy - despite, or maybe because of the surreal and absurd racism).  One of the running jokes throughout the movie is definitely from the Brooks school.  Waltz himself proves to be an actor who knows that comedy hinges on delivery and timing.  His smooth talking bounty hunter (though with a decidedly bloody streak) has a pragmatic Germanic approach to his work and is hard not be taken in by.  Foxx was part of the In Living Color crew and Booty Call (1997) is damned funny movie.  Since the early 00s he's done far more serious roles and has developed into an outstanding actor.  His Django has a charm, humor, and playfulness to the character but Foxx tempers a great deal of comedy with the seriousness of his character's role.  He portrays a caring, charming man who must harden himself to survive at all costs.  Not at all an uncommon archetype in action films but Foxx doesn't come across as a Blaxploitation anti-hero or cartoonish.

The second half works well and is much more Tarantino-esque, dialogue and action-wise.  The bloody climax reminded me of Better Tomorrow II, which is not surprising but I thought Tarantino was going to go the route of the original Django (which has an ending that has to be seen to be believed, okay BTII also has one of the best endings to any action movie ever made).

There are a number of elements of the second half of Django Unchained which took me off guard:  Leonard DiCaprio's Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen performances, the impact of grotesque violence, Tarantino's ability to draw out tension, not necessarily through snappy dialogue building to a cathartic violence (which he does at one point but at that point it works) but waves of tension, slow boiling, and a fairly extreme feeling of righteous vengeance.

I knew DiCaprio was going to do a solid job - I've grown to like him as an actor over the last decade or so (hell, he's only three years older than me so I've seen most of his movies one way or another).  I was not expecting the malevolent glee he portrayed on screen and he was able to come across as not a caricature.  I was not expecting Jackson to deliver the performance he did.  Yes, I am a Samuel L. Jackson fan, you're a Samuel L. Jackson fan, we are all Samuel L. Jackson fans.  Yes, he given great Uncle Rufus-esque dialogue but what made him a joy to watch in Django Unchained was his body language, the way he chameleons his character, and the way he manipulates events.

There is one section of the second act (I should not be using halves as much as I should be using 'acts' for this movie) where Tarantino really lets the tension mount.  I have to admit that I was worried and rapt in my attention.  Is this it?  Is the shit going to go down?  At one point I said, "Don't do it.  Not yet."  I was seriously pins and needles like a motherfucker.

I was surprised by Tarantino giving a bit of depth of his violence and its impacts on his characters.  I have seen all of his movies and this is the first one which has a theme of revisiting horrific violence, things you can't unsee to use the modern parlance.  The key scene, which is revisited later in the film, is not so much gory as it is hard to watch.  Certainly it is one of those scenes which sets up the bad guy as a truly twisted fuck and mitigates the violence that comes to him in the end, however the protagonist cannot put it out of his mind, despite the other horrors and violence he has seen or he has perpetrated.  It is an interesting device that I've seen in other movies but nothing in mainstream cinema (that I can easily recall).

The violence visited upon the evil-doers in act three.  I tell you what, those motherfuckers deserve every ounce of it.  Wait, but, as an individual I do not condone the use of violence in any form.  Fuck that, this is a movie and those fuckers need to get dick-shot.  Django Unchained ends up being pure vengeance fantasy. Not to say this is a bad thing, movie-wise.  By the time I got to the climax of the movie I almost wanted him to go Nero Django.  This movie ends bloodily, at a few parts to the point of absurdity (some of the foley work during this sequence made me laugh, but again a minor nitpick), and fails to carry the weight of a movie like The Wild Bunch but Django Unchained is not The Wild Bunch.

I guess I should probably say something about the way "race" and "race relations" were handled in Django Unchained.  Then again, I'm sure there are all kinds of papers and articles about this movie out there which are better written than this post.  One question I keep going back to is how the movie would have been received if it had directed by a black man or woman instead of Tarantino.  Yeah, Tarantino has been controversial because of his use of racial epithets back in the olden times of the last century and?  If Spike Lee or Antoine Fuqua ot John Singleton had made Django Unchained (I love John Singleton movies, actually I could see Singleton making Django Unchained albiet with a less Tarantino-esque script) would the public response had been the same or different?  There are many points of conjecture and I could bring up masking, signifying, source something about Uncle Remus, and add in something about fashion and freedom ("You wanna dress like that?") but this probably isn't the time nor place.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Django Unchained was that the movie is its own thing and not a collage of "hey cool movie reference after cool movie reference Tarantino onanism" (or maybe I just have not seen all of the movies Django Unchained is referencing).  However, there is one tiny section of dialogue between Foxx and Franco Nero (the original Django) - "The 'D' is silent."  "Yeah, I know."  For some reason that one line, delivered so dryly dismissive by Nero, works for me.  Thanks for acknowledging that we get your references, Mr. Tarantino, now keep making movies as good as Django Unchained.      

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