Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Django Unchained

Disclaimer: I am an avid fan of Quentin Tarantino.  I think he is the best director working today, and I love the way he approaches and films his material.  That's not all, though, for his soundtracks are incredible and the casts he cobbles together are exceptional.  All gushing aside, I think I can provide an honest assessment of his work.  Why?  Well, I think he is that damn good, and I'm apparently not the only one.  Regardless, I wanted to let you know how much I cherish his work, and you should also know that I am a huge fan of spaghetti westerns.  Yes, noting that I was eager to see Django Unchained would represent an understatement of the highest order, but now that we've gotten the disclaimer stuff out of the way, let's talk about QT's latest.

Last night, I finally got to sit down with Django, and I feel that Quentin has delivered another instant classic.  Despite a lengthy run-time (165 minutes) and a plot that wanders at times--much like its heroes--I'm not sure that our generation's finest director ever missed a beat with this one.  A loving homage to spaghetti westerns fused with an unflinching take on a controversial topic, Django Unchained is like nothing you have ever seen before.  There's warmth, there's deplorable human behavior, there's heroism, and there's lots and lots of bloody vengeance. 

After seeing slavery through Tarantino's eyes, every gruesome act of retribution is a triumph of sorts.  There is a lot bloodshed, and with every drop of innocent blood spilled, we thirst for larger quantities of bad guy blood.  Thankfully, there are lots of bad guys on hand.  Our heroes, a slave and a bounty hunter, are played by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz.  They have their sights set on a vicious plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and they must contend with various villains played by the likes of Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, James Remar, Bruce Dern, and Tarantino fave Samuel L. Jackson.  No one fails to deliver the goods, though Waltz and Jackson do their best to steal the show.

Let's talk about Waltz for a moment.  He scored his second Oscar for his role as Dr. King Schultz after earning his first for his work in Tarantino's last release, Inglorious Basterds.  What a find Waltz has proven to be.  In Django Unchanined, he is every bit as likable as he was despicable in the part of Hans Landa.  He owns scene after scene; his timing and his delivery are a joy to behold, and he gives the picture a much-needed dose of wholesome fun.  Every word he says and every move he makes serve to enrich the film, and though Foxx was brilliant as Django, I do feel that Waltz's magnetism  overshadowed Jamie's talent.   

By the same token, though DiCaprio was equally compelling, Samuel L. Jackson threatened his status as the premiere heavy.  Jackson gave us a thunderous performance here, dominating the material with a vigor that only Sam could summon.  There is nothing likable about his character, the devious Stephen, and yet you can't take your eyes off of him.  He snarls, grovels, and schemes, and the role takes Jackson to some dark places that he isn't reluctant to explore.  DiCaprio is equally sinister, and he seems to delight in depicting Calvin Candie as a flashy yet superficial menace, a trashy poser with a lot of money and power paired with an utter lack of morality.

There are smaller performances that bolster the picture, to include James Remar in a pair of roles and a funny cameo by Jonah Hill.  That scene was so horribly wrong and yet so very funny.  Only Tarantino can pull off gags like that.  Every aspect of his film is on par with his ability to write and direct, and the editing, the sets and the costumes, the music, all of the essentials are on point.  The color palette is immersive, the shot selection continues Tarantino's love (and gift) for recycling, and the choreography is at an all-time high.  The action is deft and the booming gunshots and the bright red splashes of blood are epic.  Whenever Django goes on the warpath, gunning down deserving monsters masquerading as men, the brazen style is almost enough to drive the viewer into a state of euphoria. 

Yes, I know there has been some controversy regarding Django Unchained.  Spike Lee is extremely jealous of Tarantino and has maintained an overtly hypocritical grudge against QT for years.  He and many others have blasted the film for its graphic portrayal of slavery and its repeated use of the n-word.  I bring this up because you have heard about it, but I encourage you to shrug it off.  The subject warrants a bold approach, and I applaud the director for his refusal to soften the impact of the picture.  If there's any subject that warrants such disclosure, surely this is it.  Yes, it's bold, but there's a lot of honesty captured in this show, and it would have been wrong to handle the material delicately.  There has also been some scrutiny given recent random acts of violence, but people have to keep art and life separate.  I don't buy into that at all, though I think I should point it out here.  If you feel differently about either of these subjects, you should probably skip this one. 

In closing, I encourage you to spend a little time with Django as he searches for his wife in a hellish vision of the pre-Civil War South.  Thankfully, he has the charming Dr. King Schultz at his side, and their remarkable partnership should provide audiences with a gripping experience for years to come.  I haven't revealed much of the plot for a reason.  If you haven't seen this one yet, you still probably know far too much about the film going in.  This is a journey, and we know where it's going from the very start, but the film takes its time getting there.  I encourage you to enjoy the ride and drink up the scenery.  Django Unchained is a brilliant film that boasts a royal conclusion, but every frame is deserving of your attention.  This is significant art, make no mistake about it, and it will start conservations.  Yet it is also a fine example of just how riveting and entertaining motion pictures can be.  Like Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained offers more than a typical Tarantino thrill ride.  This is another picture with heart, an emotional vessel that will provoke you when it isn't making you laugh or cheer.  One can only imagine what QT will do next, but he has his work cut out for him if he wants to improve upon this splendid treat.

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