Thursday, December 20, 2012

Django Unchained

The unveiling of a new Quentin Tarantino film seems akin to that of what a space launch might have been as enthusiasts tend to salivate eagerly for first contact.  It's nearly hard to believe that the once-upon-a-generation has been toiling away at it now for twenty years, as Django Unchained, his eighth feature debuts on the anniversary of Reservoir Dogs.  In the space, the cinematic language and molding that Tarantino has invented-- re-sculpted and transcribed from his on cinephilia as the narrative of video store clerk to iconoclast would go-- has vitalized modern American cinema.  It's that penchant for language, for words strewn about casually but mightily, matched with the wiz bang eye for spectacle and genre mash-ups that allure the fans of the past while connecting the fans of today.  Within single and broader strokes, Tarantino, with that eye and sense that everything can be learned and cultivated through the prism of a movie screen, always supplies his baggage and his fandom to his work, unleashing a new generation to terms like "spaghetti western" and "grindhouse."  That his exploits have grown past novelty, and his own filmmaking powers and gifts have improved and delighted through the years is the violent, yet succulent gift left for his audience.

The first notable thing about Django Unchained, a revenge flick set in the Deep South a few years before the Civil War, is the inevitable comparisons it shares with his his last feature, Inglourious Basterds.  Both set in turbulent, oppressive time frames, and both designed as revisionist-history fairy tales.  Perhaps Tarantino had such a blast rewriting the past as he presented a murdered in cold blood Hitler, he wanted to go back further-- Django Unchained is ultimately a tale of former slave who gets to get a whole lot of white dudes.  However, the comparisons end in tone, execution and refinement.  Basterds through its bombast and at-times comic absurdity with an elegant refinement and sprawling characterizations, some moving, some ridiculously anachronistic, but underlined with a sensitivity to its subjects and the period.  In Inglourious Basterds bests stretches, Tarantino achieved an artful humanism to his grisly non-factual show.  Django, on the other hand, is messier and grind-ier, tackling slavery with the same transgressive aplomb, but with a seemingly unfinished veneer.  It's both a simpler revenge fantasy and more daring in it's broadly comedic strokes.

Django (Jamie Foxx) begins his revenge fantasy in the opening bout as he's rescued while miserly navigating through a chain gang.  The mystery savior is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former German dentist-turned American bounty hunter.  He needs help in identifying three nasty men, who happened to Django's former owners.  The first sequence, a delicately worded elongated one is striking in its Tarantino-isms, and especially in setting up the first confrontational and assaulting tone.  As Django is sold to Dr. Schultz, who informs of his abolitionist ways, shoots the white leaders of the chain gang and unearths the other members to do as they will and head to safer territories, as he embarks on a journeyman quest with Django, eventually becoming his mentor in the killing and cashing-in business.  The upfront and grisly depiction of slavery is a daring do for Tarantino, but also one for Hollywood-- there's a through line, if one wants to see it-- from Birth of a Nation to Django Unchained; it's in the eyes of the beholder if that's a good thing or not.

Tarantino reverts his tale into a buddy film between the Dr. Schultz and Django, with the promise that once their job is done, the ex-dentist (with a tooth-laden atop his bunker to boot) will free him.  Instead, Django becomes a natural shoot, and comes closer to partner in the bounty hunter game.  An early sequence reveals the nastiness of the period with, one assumes, an accuracy of spirit, if not tone, as Django, liberated with the thrills of dressing himself and riding horseback side by side a white man, setting the South into a flurry with each step.  The first stop is to bigwig plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) where the first bounties are conveniently hanging around.  Django makes such an impression, that the duo are quickly thwarted into the night by a group lead by Big Daddy in an early incarnation of Klan members.  Tarantino uses this as mileage to lump around with the films strangest joke about the members arguing over the inadequate masks before meeting eventual slaughter.

Django Unchained finally rests out the films real plot in a dialogue where Django reveals he has a wife, and his mission is to rescue her and run off as free; Schultz agrees to help.  Her name is Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Hans Landa of the Deep South.  The centerpiece scene of Django Unchained lies at Candyland, Candie's grand plantation, and one of which that lies on the conviction and fortitude and multi-layered capacities that defines the film, but more importantly what it could have been.  The scene in question, is a long one, one consisting only of dialogue, the directors forte.  The key players have gathered for a dinner, each with their own agenda, and each seemingly unwitting of the others or the hands being dealt.  Django and Schultz are trying to convince the sale of a black male fighter from Candie (with the hopeful extension of Broomhila, quietly serving behind), Candie, all grandiosity with flowery language and oddly incestuous puppy eyes at his sister, is in for the greed or the pleasure, finding himself smitten by Django's fortitude and charisma.  As counterpoint, it's Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's in house possession, and an interesting case study in himself, who becomes the smartest man in the room.

What evolves is a pure Tarantino medley of violence, but what's missing the emotive current that bridges these characters together, or to the audience.  For all the actorly precision and grandstanding around, there's little on terms of performance.  Waltz and DiCaprio billow colorfully and madly to the rafters (DiCaprio, for instance, is the loosest and most free associative he's been in his entire career, relishing the ham provided and calling out the hope that a great character actor may actually exist bellow his movie star glow) while Foxx projects consistent bad-assery but the main characters are surprisingly rote and one-note by design, neither granted nor advised to flesh out the meaty patches of dialogue.  Washington is sadly just window dressing, itself a nagging transgression.  It's Jackson who has the most interesting character, one of a not-quite freed man, who is given license to behaving above the simpler subjects.  His loyalty and psychology could be a movie in its own, but the bombast takes over the quiet shades of character as Django Unchained unravels its simple tale of fantasy revenge.

But there is something different about Django Unchained that's harder to finger.  It appears shapeless, lost in itself and perhaps a bit hurried.  For a film with a nearly three hour run time, the climax is a race to the finish.  It's not that the film drags necessarily, but it's messy and perhaps a bit unsure of itself, despite all the bravado.  I'm no doubt sure there's a great movie in here somewhere, there's glimmers of one all over the place, but this ain't it.  C

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