Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Django Unchained

My father & I saw a second film while I was visiting him in Las Vegas.

Django Unchained starring Jaime Foxx, Christoph Waltz & Leonardo DiCaprio; with Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington & Don Johnson; directed by Quentin Tarantino; (2012) - Official Website

It turns out my father is a bit of Tarantino fan.  I am too but I didn't think he was.  Django Unchained  was the only film he wanted to see while I was in town.  I dragged him to Lincoln.  It's hard to discuss films with my father.  He is getting older and conflates films.  He thinks certain scenes occur in one film but in fact they occur in another.  I can't believe my father is a fan of Kill BillPulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs.  He has a hard time with non-linear storytelling.  Fortunately, the plots for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained progress in linear fashion which are the only Tarantino films I have seen with him.

Django Unchained doesn't need much set up.  Django (Jaime Foxx), a former slave and now a bounty hunter, arrives at the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  I thought I saw the character's name spelled Brunhilda on a bill of sale in the film but all the sources I see on the internet show the character's name as Broomhilda like the cartoon character.  Django is accompanied by his mentor & the man who freed him from slavery, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), also a bounty hunter.  Candie is capably assisted by his chief house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

That is the story in a nutshell but Tarantino stretches this out to 2 hours, 45 minutes.  I noted to my father that Django was 15 minutes longer than Lincoln but he said it felt shorter.  There was never a point where I confused about the characters as I was in Lincoln at time, but there were stretches where I felt the film could have benefited from some editing.  That's quite damning from me as I don't recall feeling that way about any other Tarantino film.

If you asked me what I would take out, my quick suggestions would be some of the scenes in the mountains where Django learns his quick draw skills, most of the scene with the KKK predecessors and most of the scenes where Django escapes from his inexplicably Australian captors/miners which seemed mostly to be vanity scene for Tarantino, his long time collaborator Michael Parks and his stated favorite actor from Australia, John Jarratt (Picnic at Hanging Rock).  This might get it down to 2 hours, 30 minutes but the plot seems better suited to 1 hour, 50 minutes or so.

Of course, Tarantino can make me feel like a 2:30 film is as lean as can as was the case with Inglourious Basterds.  I guess that really gets to the heart of the matter.  I wanted to enjoy Django Unchained as much as Inglourious Basterds but I didn't.  That's not to say I didn't like Django Unchained; it just didn't meet my lofty expectations.  That's unfair to the film and ultimately myself but it is the truth.

What was there to like in Django Unchained?  Samuel L. Jackson in particular.  He looks like Uncle Ben but acts like Uncle Tom.  At times, Stephen addresses his master as if the roles were reversed but Jackson's portrayal is characterized by deep self-loathing of his race and the ruthlessness by which he wields power among the household slaves.  Matching him step-for-step is Leonardo DiCaprio as the Southern gentleman whose casual racism is to be expected in a film set in the Antebellum South.  However, his casual brutality & cruelty is likely more shocking to modern audiences.  Those two character, Stephen & Calvin Candie, are not exactly well developed by the plot but you can fill in their backstory without too much trouble.  They provide more than adequate villains for the two heroes (Django & Schultz).  However, Django & Schultz never really get the meaty scenes like the two villains (it's always the case, isn't it?).

Christoph Waltz has some nice scenes early on as he tracks down his bounty prey but as the film progresses, the focus shifts to Django who is more enigmatic.  Actually, how a German dentist came to be a bounty hunter in 1850s United States sounds like a good movie.  Regarding Django, other than Candie observing he is 1 in 10,000, there is little to explain Django's drive, courage and skills.

Unlike Inglourious Basterds, where Tarantino brought about a premature end to WWII, there is no indication that the Civil War would be averted in the semi-fictional Django Unchained universe.  The film is set in 1858/59.  I left the theater wondering what kind of life Django & Broomhilda would have as the buildup to and actual Civil War inflamed racial prejudices.  Django made a point taking Broomhilda's bill of sale and certificate of manumission making it clear that he felt he would need these documents as proof of her free status in the future.  I guess these types of historical conjectures don't belong when considering the merits of Django Unchained.

Some other observations:

The use of the word "nigger" is beyond ubiquitous.  For a film set in the time & location which Django Unchained is set, that is to be expected.  Curiously, my sensitivity to the word became dulled through repeated use.

When the slaves were fighting to the death, their movements reminded me a lot of MMA fighting.  It made me question the ethics of watching MMA.  I wonder if that was intentional on Tarantino's part.

Franco Nero showed up as the slave owner of the opponent of Candie's slave.  That's the scene where Django spells his name - "D-J-A-N-G-O; the D is silent."  Nero responds "I know."  I wonder how many in the audience realized Nero had played the title role in Django in the 1960s.

Several of the scenes involve white actors speaking with exaggerated Southern accents and acting in a depraved manner...and they eventually get their comeuppances.  As satisfying as that is, the repetition makes in tiring.

Jaime Foxx wearing a Little Boy Blue valet outfit more appropriate for 17th or 18th century is one of the most amusing moments of the film.

The opening theme song is from the original Django.

No comments: