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Review: Django Unchained

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1138856 - Django Unchained
- Review by Rob Nijman. UK release: 18 January, 2013.

Few movies made me fancy all things cinema quite like Pulp Fiction. Further back, Commando and The Last Boy Scout spring to mind, for altogether different reasons, and later I grew rather fond of the directorial oeuvres of Scorsese and Scott, Huston and Wilder, Mann and Stone – to name but a few. Reservoir Dogs started it though, True Romance and From Dusk Till Dawn kept it at a comfortable arm’s length from all others, and it was Pulp Fiction that sparked the biggest interest. No contest.
To sum up: I write about movies because of Pulp Fiction.

Then the nineties ended, and QT started the brave new millenium by giving us a diptych clusterfuck in celebration of Uma, an awful piece of grindhouse fodder grossly outclassed by its companion piece, and a misfiring bit of WWII-spoofing. Let me elaborate on that for a bit. Kill Bill, though enjoyable, is hardly endlessly watchable and was mostly a roadmap to the cinema-cognoscente piece of QT’s grey matter, including hot spots of the specific sources his ideas spring from. Death Proof didn’t work, because when you feed a band of merry women Reservoir Dogs-esque dialogue, the words feel like they’ve been taken hostage, and hostage situations should be left to vampires in Mexican trucker bars. And while Inglorious Basterds might have been a good idea, it was spelled all wrong. Best leave the nazi-bashing to Spielberg.

Setting out on this review, I reminded myself to mention the fact that past Django’s halfway point, I glanced at my watch on several ocassions. Usually not a good sign. However, since it took me this long to get to the actual title that headlines this little story here, it would be a poor bit of self reflection on my part to comment on QT’s wordiness. Also, I’ve been having the Pulp Fiction-dvd on ever since I finished the first paragraph, and multi-tasking is hardly my strong suit, chromosomically or otherwise. And right now, Pulp Fiction is winning the battle for my attention. I’ve never been able to turn that movie off. If I stumble upon it on television just before turning in at night, I’m screwed. I’ll just have to come back in about 148 minutes.

Chapter II – The Django Situation (147 minutes, 42 seconds later)

QT’s latest then. His words work once again (in spades), Christoph Waltz is deservant of a statue – not the small, golden kind, but a big, marble one -, Jamie Foxx knows how to stretch a character all the way from humbly obedient to vengefully ass-kicking, the director knows how to attract an impressive ensemble, and Robert Richardson just loves his colours. That’s the short version.

Set in the South two years before the Civil War, the full synopsis reads, Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as the titular slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. The unlikely duo set out together, first to go after the Brittles, then in search for Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s wife whom he lost to the slave trade long ago. Their search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation where Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Sam Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave. If they are to escape with Broomhilda, they must choose between independence and solidarity, between sacrifice and survival…

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Django’s first scene unveils in no uncertain terms that Waltz revised the previous QT stint somewhat, but basically offers another version of his Colonel Landa; an eloquent, in-control professional who makes the way of his own choosing, all the while dispensing a particular brand of enchanting vernacular. That’s alright, it’s a just reward for his Oscar-winning supporting role. As it happens, it’s far more than alright; he was the best thing in Basterds with room to spare. In Django, he steals that opening scene, and is hardly a Robin Hood when it comes to distributing the loot thereafter; in spite of whatever intentions to share the screen, it’s essentially the Christoph Waltz Show from the get-go. An effortlessly entertaining one too.

Jamie Foxx. Has himself another title role. At first, I wasn’t quite sure if he was struggling with his characters’ development, or effectively portraying his characters’ development. When the time comes for the inevitable high noon at the OK Corral, it’s quite clear though and I’m rather inclined to say it was the latter, making it an impressive if very subtle performance. When his transition from slave stock to 19th century Shaft comes full circle, it’s Foxx who gets to have the most fun with it. As does his audience. Whereas most of the movies’ comedy, which it has in abundance, comes from either Waltz being charismatically present and verbally chewing the scenery, as well as his unlikely pairing to Foxx (as a duo, they’re quite charming in a -apologies for the obvious comparison- Riggs & Murtaugh kinda way), the latter definitely gets the best of it in the balls-out finale. Foxx displays his versatility once again.

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DiCaprio meanwhile is having a ball as well, being the dictatorial lord of Candyland, even if it feels at times the part of Calvin Candie should have gone to a more elderly gentleman more at ease with sadistic malice and fearsome ascendancy – Michael Parks, for example. Who gets a nice little cameo here. As does Franco Nero, the star of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Django, and about a hundred others. Still, it’s cool to see Leo be the baddie for once, even if I more look forward to his take on Jay Gatsby in the forthcoming 2013 epic, which is better suited to his particular skill set (although it probably would have made for a Greater Gatsby if the studio had picked Scorsese, as put forward by Entourage‘s screenwriters in a wishful effort, over Baz Luhrmann). Also, the part of the altogether more fitting elderly gentleman went to Sam Jackson, Mr Cool, who plays a character unlike any we’ve ever seen him do – easily outranking DiCaprio. It’s a bit much to state QT has escorted another gem towards the supporting category at the AMPAS, but the way Jacksons’ Uncle Tom-character maliciously serves his master is a thespian sight to see.

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It’s also exactly that performance that’s at the core of Django. Theme-wise, it paints a not too pretty picture of pre-Civil War America on a long and hard road towards the abolition of slavery, in an era where class differences and the treatment of racial minorities made the later Jim Crow-laws look saintly. It’s for that exact reason also, that Spike Lee is wrong in ignoring this, as he publicly has. QT isn’t out to strew the n-word just for entertainment purposes. He is not being characteristically un-pc for un-pc’s sake, even if he has dibs on political incorrectness. Rather, he shines a different light on these dark pages of US history, and at some levels maybe even a more accurate one. This is the ugly truth of slavery as it was marginalised or even completely cold-shouldered so often in the classic spaghetti westerns, at least as far as the director is concerned, even if it’s just a step towards or corollary of creating a fictional adventure, and censoring the use of the word ‘nigger’ here would be just as bad as removing it from the pages of contemporaneous Tom Sawyer, or sweeping out ‘pickaninny’ from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, one of the best sold books of the American 19th century (second only to the bible), has been attacked for all its negative associations as well, not in the least for use of the word ‘pickaninny’, but it has also been credited with laying the groundwork for the Civil War, which in turn marked the end of the slave trade. Abraham Lincoln himself was even quoted as saying something along the lines of “so this is the little lady who started this great war” when he met her, although the biographical research goes on to state that the anecdote might have been a desire to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change rather than an actual quote…

At any rate, you can’t be pc all the time. You can’t study the darker bits of the past if someone else colours them, alters them. You can’t learn from history by erasing it. Also, you can’t and mustn’t want QT to be pc, for the same reason you don’t want to gag the likes of Oliver Stone or Clint Eastwood (where was the public outcry around the joyfully enthusiastic use of the word ‘gook’ in Gran Torino?), as their best work is on that very edge, or even over it. And Django is QT’s best since Pulp Fiction – even if the latter is in no danger of getting its thunder stolen.

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Django joyfully crosses genres in much the same way Cloud Atlas failed. The road swerves from a slapstick Clan-raid straight out of Blazing Saddles (enter a gleesome Don Johnson) to Hostel-like violence, and from a Great Western Adventure back to buddy-comedy, but QT is firmly at the wheel. His driving is, at times, a bit slow, sure. But that tends to come with the (Western) territory, even if it takes place in the South.

It’s daring, good-looking, extremely well written and tremendously entertaining on more than a few levels. It has all the QT marks, from sudden and undue violence that’s laugh-out-loud funny some times, horrible at others, to spun-out dialogue that warrants repeated viewings and will leave you struggling to remember some or even all of it just for reiteration purposes. It’s skillfully directed and boasts a cinematographer in love with his subject, has more than a few things to say on more than a few subjects (it’s basically US history 101, Century 19, as lectured (and fictionalised) by QT), and is very well acted all around.

Mostly though, it’s a veritable playground for QT the writer and soaked in winks, quirks, references and gimmicks by QT the director, although he goes a bit too far in some of his indulgences. However, for restoring my faith in his skills as a helmer of the un-pc movie that goes far beyond being boldly un-pc (say, the sheer measure of multi-level enjoyment), I can easily forgive Django for being a bit too QT.
I’ll see it again as soon as it opens.

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