Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained: the birth of a legend

With Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has tapped into a part of himself that we hadn't previously seen until this point: his twisted take on history. What Quentin Tarantino has done with history is unlike anything I've seen from any other filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino isn't interested in making historical films. He wants to go back in time and rewrite the history books, remaking history in whatever genre suits the story. After all, he makes genre films. He's a genre filmmaker. He just never sticks to the same genre.

Goddammit. Quentin Tarantino is so fucking unique; I really do not think we appreciate him as much as he appreciates himself. I don't mean that as a slight. QT is good. He knows he's good. He should be good. He lives and breathes film. His films are as cinematic as humanly possible. It's funny people have criticized him for stealing from other people and yet only he can make the kinds of films that he makes. I have a feeling Quentin Tarantino thinks in genres. His world is a genre. He quit school after the ninth grade and yet makes more insightful films about World War II and American slavery than you would expect. He didn't learn from school, he taught himself. Just like he taught himself how to make films. He's managed to make these last two films as analytical and thoughtful as they are wildly entertaining. You can argue that his first five films were solely meant to entertain and tell interesting stories; they did just that. But his last two films are different. They're the same, yet so different. To Quentin, the way history originally played out just doesn't make any sense. So, he'll rewrite it in a way where it does make sense. At the very least, it'll make sense to him.

He constructs a film like Inglourious Basterds, which features this group of guys getting the job done, killing, scalping Nazis much to our delight. Yet, later on he turns the camera on the audience, on us and the Nazi audience in Shoshanna's movie theater. They laugh, eat popcorn, as they watch Nazi soldiers kill Americans. Then he proceeds to kill Hitler. QT seems to think that almost everyone shares the same visceral feelings and desires: they want to see the bad guys get what's coming to them.

It's presented in Django Unchained too. It's about two hours into the movie, we've been entertained, following along as Django and Dr. Schultz hunt down all these men who have bounties on their heads, kill them, then collect their reward. When we're introduced to Calvin Candie, played deliciously by Leonardo DiCaprio, he's been entertained as well, watching two slaves fight each other to the death. He's having the same kind of visceral enjoyment we are, while sitting on the couch, smoking his cigarette. In that moment, is he that much more different than us? Considerably. Just like the Nazi audience are considerably different than us. Still, in that moment, we have the camera turned on us. We may be on the right side of history, but Quentin Tarantino isn't going to let us enjoy his historical revisions without forcing us to think about some of the implications that may go along with such enjoyment.

It's entertainment with a double-edged sword which makes it thought-provoking. Quentin Tarantino wants to analyze the thought process that goes along with vengeance. When someone gets shot in his films, he buries the point on home. The violence is brutal because violence is brutal. Depending on how it's portrayed, it can be entertaining, but he's never going to make it easy to swallow. I get, perhaps, the same type of reaction that some of you will get when you see these bloody shoot outs take place: it will make you jump a little bit. You may laugh, you may be entertained, but you'll also feel a little uneasy. I honestly think that's what Quentin Tarantino wants. He wants you to be both entertained and to feel uneasy. That just means you're human. If blood wasn't splattering all over the place, it'd be a lot easier to stomach, right? But why? People are still dying on screen in front of you.

Django Unchained really is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It doesn't quite have the immediate "wow" factor of Inglourious Basterds which had intertwined such a beautiful tale of redemption with the story of Shoshanna that it really elevated the entire picture which was otherwise about a couple of Nazi killers. Django Unchained is simply about... Django, played by Jamie Foxx. He gets freed by a German named Dr. Schultz, a former dentist turned bounty hunter.

The premise is simple enough: Dr. Schultz has a bounty on the Brittle bothers, Django knows what they look like. He wants Django's help in pointing out who they are so that he can catch up, kill them, then collect the reward. In return, feeling responsible for Django's freedom, Dr. Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife Broomhilda.

Broomhilda is often shown being whipped and tortured many different times in the film. It can be tough to watch, but I also think it helps define Django as a character. At the same time, QT refuses to back down on the harsh realities of the time. It may be tough to watch, but of course it's tough to watch, it should be. In witnessing these harsh realities, it helps make us understand how and why Django ultimately becomes the man he is at the end. He's utterly committed to Broomhilda, his true love, and he will do absolutely what it takes to get her back in the end.

The film is nearly three hours long, but I honestly do not think it really ever drags. It's entertaining from start to finish. That said, aside from it developing the relationship between Django and Dr. Schultz, I do feel the film kinda stalls arbitrarily while we wait for the next act to arrive. They find the Brittle brothers, then kill them, and the next thing to do is to find Broomhilda and the movie kinda sits on that plot point for a little while, as Django and Dr. Schultz continue on in the bounty hunting business. The final 90 minutes or so of the film is so damn delicious that it's almost as if Tarantino is teasing us by making us wait a little bit. My basic point here is that the film had moved at such a quick pace that it's kinda jarring the way it slows things down before we meet Calvin Candie. Usually, QT has always constructed his films in a non-linear way which prevented us from getting too caught up in the pacing of the film but since Django Unchained is one long linear story, while it's still thoroughly entertaining, I just think the pacing is a bit rough in the middle.

Other than that, there's really not a single flaw that I can find from when we meet Calvin Candie to the very end. It all plays out so beautifully and contains some of Quentin's finest moments as a writer. He loves these characters and he wants Calvin, Dr. Schultz, and Django to have a good time before they ultimately wind up in a violent conclusion. And boy is Leo so fun to watch here. Leonardo DiCaprio usually plays these tortured souls, it's a thrill to watch him play such a charming villain here. He plays both a lighter and darker side that we haven't really seen before. He can make you laugh one second, then turn crazy the next. It's an unbelievably controlled and skilled performance.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are both solid in their roles, Kerry Washington does a fine job although she doesn't really get to do too much. The real treasure is Samuel L. Jackson as Calvin Candie's head slave Stephen. Stephen is an old slave, loyal to Mr. Candie, and it's Sam L. Jackson's best performance in years. While he's still got that usual Samuel L. Jackson edge to him, George plays quite a vital role to the story, always wise to Dr. Schultz and Django's antics. The way it plays out and where Samuel L. Jackson goes with the character is really fun to watch.

As for the filmmaking itself, it's Quentin in heaven. Finally getting to play in his spaghetti western sandbox, Quentin makes some funky use out of the quick zoom, wanting to emulate some of his heroes. It's this part of him that's both endearing and kind of annoying. I think the quick zooms look pretty cool and then add to the whole spaghetti western feel, but is it all that necessary? There are plenty of other elements of the film that makes it of the spaghetti western genre, it adds to the atmosphere of it all, perhaps. To the filmmaking, cinematic spectacle of it, perhaps. But I have mixed feelings on this stylistic choice.

What's best about Django Unchained is its unabashed sense of humor and wit. Quentin Tarantino has never been funnier or more playful than in this film. There's a sequence in the film involving an early version of the KKK that's as funny as anything QT has ever done. Throughout the film, there's so many great lines and it's definitely helped by the actors' enthusiastic deliveries, which includes Christoph Waltz who seems to have opened up a whole new vocabulary and wordplay for Tarantino to explore.

I felt like Inglourious Basterds was able to be the film and genre QT wanted it to be without having to play up its style and to me, that makes it the superior film. Still, Django Unchained is so damn entertaining on many levels and brilliant on other levels that it's easy to forgive QT's indulgences. The bottom line is that the film succeeds in doing exactly what Quentin Tarantino wants to do, whether you like it or not and, considering that, Django Unchained is an absolute, resounding success.

Quentin Tarantino is like Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carrie) if De Palma wrote his own screenplays and wasn't so obsessed with Hitchcock. Those two filmmakers have such a knack for the cinematic, for the over-the-top-ness of it all, the spectacle of it all. When you watch a film by either of those two (that is, by De Palma during the height of his career), you can really feel the love of cinema through their films. It bleeds right through. But Quentin is unique because it starts from the blank page every time, except for Jackie Brown. And now he's rewriting history, examining it, filtering through the genre of his choice. He's a filmmaker who knows what the basic audience wants and knows how to play up to their expectations. There's really no one quite like that.

And I think that he is totally within his right to make this movie, that just so happens to have a strong slavery element to it. He's not going back to these terrible times in history for the fun of it, he has something to say about slavery. He wants us to face it head on, look it right in the eye, while simultaneously crafting an entertaining film around the subject, making that much more difficult to turn away. During the course of things, he creates a legend who goes by the name of Django. Nobody else would dare to ever make a film like this; Quentin just did. And it's glorious. It's nearly perfect.

Grade: A-

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