Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: "Django Unchained"

Quentin Tarantino made a name for himself in 1992 with the release of his first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, but since being lauded as a young, stylish visionary with Pulp Fiction in 1994, his films have been surrounded by controversy in one way or another. Jackie Brown (1997) was too vulgar for critics, Kill Bill (2003/2004) was too violent, and Inglourious Basterds was heavily censored for its depiction of Nazi iconography (and it was too violent!). Yet, all of his films (including his 2007 Grindhouse effort Death Proof) have at least an 83% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Django Unchained is Tarantino's second film to open on Christmas Day (fifteen years after Jackie Brown) and it has been shrouded in controversy since Tarantino first mentioned a black slave spaghetti western in 2007.  Michael K. Williams (known to most as Omar Little on The Wire) was on tap to star in the film, but the role was ultimate won by Jamie Foxx. Frequent Tarantino contributor Samuel L. Jackson has a prominent role, but it is two other actors who completely steal the show. Christoph Waltz  - who won an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds -and Leonardo DiCapario are marvelous with Tarantino's trademark dialogue. Django Unchained is bloody violent, with its violence more realistic than Kill Bill, but it is the language that has troubled some critics. A particular ethnic slur aimed at African Americans has made Django Unchained the target of racist claims. Spike Lee has gone as far as to say that he will not see the film because he believes it insults his ancestors. Quentin Tarantino is not the kind of director who is going to back away from making a bold statement. Django Unchained is provocative and daring, and it is exactly the type of film you should expect from Tarantino. You may question yourself for loving it, but it is a terrifically well made and stylized film with expertly written dialogue. As a die hard Tarantino fan, I loved Django Unchained. Tarantino does not hold back, and we should expect more filmmakers to take a bolder approach to cinematic expression.

Beginning in the fall of 1858 in Texas, two years before the American Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) have been sold separately at a slave auction as a punishment for trying to escape. As the film begins, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist turned bounty hunter of German origin, rescues Django from the Speck brothers, who are transporting a group of slaves across Texas. Dr. Schultz recruits Django to help him track down the Brittle brothers and in exchange he will help Django rescue Broomhilda. Their initial relationship, that of owner and slave, turns into a friendship in which Dr. Schultz teaches Django to become a bounty hunter. As winter fades into spring, Dr. Schultz and Django discover that Broomhilda was bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardi DiCaprio), who owns and operates a huge plantation in Mississippi. Dr. Schultz, ever the eccentric man, believes it is important to concoct a back story, and he and Django must come up with a plan to infiltrate Candyland.

Like every Tarantino, the dialogue is near perfect. It would be a treat to listen to any talented actor speak Tarantino's lines without the use of costumes and scenery. Many of Django Unchained's best moments involve the dialogue between two characters. The chemistry between Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx is fantastic, and the two men share an awful lot of time on screen together. The film also features some fantastic cameo appearances, especially from Don Johnson, as a plantation owner employing the skills of the Brittle brothers. One of the film's lightest moments features Jonah Hill and Don Johnson arguing about the necessity of the Ku Klux Klan wearing masks. Jamie Foxx may have the central role, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz have both been awarded Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor. It is almost shocking to see that the two best performances in the film are actually being singled out. We will have to wait until January 10 to see if the Academy voters see any merit in their performances, considering that the SAG Awards failed to award any nominations for the film. In terms of the controversy surrounding a certain pejorative in the film, I must say that Quentin Tarantino used some very colourful language in Jackie Brown, a film about an African American drug kingpin. I happen to like to watch a film that refuses to hold back. Django Unchained would certainly be a different film without some of its language. Django Unchained may not be Tarantino's best film (or even my favourite), but it is a tremendously well made film from the often-demented mind of Quentin Tarantino.

My rating: 3.75 stars out of 4. 

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