Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review: Django Unchained

I have a complex relationship with Quentin Tarantino. On the one hand he has directed a lot of my favorite films; Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Inglorious Basterds, and even Death Proof which I guess isn’t considered one of his best. On the other hand I also think he’s pretty crazy. As in his mind doesn’t work in the same way the average person’s would. He makes these genre films based purely on the fact that he enjoyed those types of films when he was younger and somehow turns them into marketable Hollywood movies, which usually results in these bizarre flicks that stylistically speaking are all over the map. He is the definition of a director who makes movies solely for his own enjoyment and if movie goers also enjoy it then that’s just the gravy. But the really weird thing is that despite his obvious self-indulgence, and also his tendency to forego linier storytelling, he is one of the few directors in Hollywood who consistently makes really good movies. I don’t know if I’ve seen a Tarantino movie that I thought was specifically bad; the worst were just not my cup of tea. He actually probably has more movies on my Top 20 Movie list (one day…) than anyone else.

This brings us to his latest movie; Django Unchained. Like pretty much all his previous films Tarantino was inspired by an old school film genre; in this case the “Spaghetti Westerns” of the old days. However the twist, and really the controversy, with this was he decided it’d be cool to have the back drop of the film be set in a Pre-Civil War Deep South. Indeed the title character is a former slave and the plot pulls no punches when it comes to the depiction of such. Now this alone has made key figures in the black community, shall we say, “pissed off” but unfortunately the heavy use of the “N-Word” caused things to go from uncomfortable to “It looks like the race war is about to start” (Seriously, I have read some people actually suggest this). It’s been a pretty big thing hanging over the movie’s head.

Now I hate to turn this blog political but I really think some of these guys need to chill the hell out. I get the idea is that a) they think Tarantino shouldn’t be making light of American slavery because it was the worst period of our countries history and that b) the N-Word will always be a touchy subject no matter how far race relations have come. However as someone who likes Westerns but has always been annoyed by the lack of black protagonists I’m overjoyed that someone finally decided to put make a film starring someone who looks like me, even if that someone is white (I actually don’t give a shit what race the director is). And, really, if you’re going to have a cowboy movie starring a black guy just from a historical stand point it will always be tied to slavery because the vast majority of characters would either be a former slave or the children of slaves. Hell even the cartoonish Wild Wild West mentioned that Will Smith’s character escaped slavery…and also had a giant mechanical spider, but whatever. And as for the use of the N-Word? It doesn’t bother me because the movie takes place PRE-CIVIL WAR SOUTH. Of course the racist slave owning white assholes are going to spout that word like it’s going out of style. It was 1859 and this is a period piece; calm down. I believe that the real reason it got so much shit was because it was a white director and really that specific white director who has gotten in trouble for this exact thing in the past (So we’re basically having the same argument against the same guy we had almost twenty years ago). Bottom line it’s a cowboy movie that stars a black guy during a point in history where black people were slaves; it may not be pretty and it may not be super politically correct but that doesn’t really matter because it’s a movie written and directed by a guy who, while not subtle, can’t really be accused of being a racist.

Do you think Leo DiCaprio got this much shit for Gangs of New York?
Phew, let’s put that soap box away. Full review of Django Unchain solely on its merits after the jump.

[WARNING: This review contains some spoilers, so read at your own risk.]

OK, Jamie; I take back all those mean things I said about you
German dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is looking for a man who knows what the Speck brothers look like. To this end he seeks out two slavers in the middle of the night to talks to one of the black slaves in their captivity, Django (Jamie Foxx), and comes to the conclusion he’s the person he’s been looking for. After a bloody altercation Schultz “buys” Django (but leaves the slavers for dead and frees the other slaves) and reveals that he is actually a bounty hunter. He strikes a deal with Django; the two of them will track down the Speck brothers and afterwards the slave will get his freedom and $75 in return. As the two become friends and partners Django reveals that he has a wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he plans on finding and freeing. Touched Schultz promises to aide Django in his quest.

If you like stylized action then Django Unchained is a film you will enjoy, almost regardless of everything else. There’s a real Neo Grindhouse feel to it (is “Neo Grindhouse” a thing? I’m going to lay claim on it if it’s not a thing) where that there’s a lot of 70s sensationalism mixed with modern sensibilities and budget. It works well, and it works better than not only Death Proof but also Robert Rodriguez’s similar films Planet Terror and Machete. The balance between over the top action/editing and characters we can actually become emotional invested with is stronger than pretty much all those films. The script is pretty good but the dialogue is really where it shines the most. While Tarantino has his weaknesses he is very good at writing dialogue between two people that’s funny and clever. Also the number of super lame lines that he usually slips into these flicks; surprisingly low.

Stay away from this dude when he's got a goddamn hammer
Jamie Foxx as the title character is solid. He manages to play the role with the exact right amount of badass and vulnerability. This would have been a really easy role to piss people off with a bad portrayal as Django grows from a slave ignorant of the world into a gun toting force of nature, something that’s hard to pull off without being offensive on some level. He pulls it off. Weirdly I hear that Will Smith was up for this role but it didn’t work out. We dodged a bullet because I have no reason to believe he could have done this role without it being really silly.

Moving along Christoph Waltz finally has a performance that matches the promise laid out from Inglorious Basterds (as in all the films I’ve seen him in since then he’s been just “okay”). Waltz is great as Schultz and the character himself is really interestingly written. He’s a well-spoken and reasonable German who despises slavery and is extremely loyal to his friends. His friendly and eloquent nature, however appealing it makes him, does not change the fact that he’s a vicious killer for hire (though his cliental seems to exclusively be the US government) and ultimately he’s little more than a blunt object that cannot only respond to problems with violence despite being the only white person in this film with any morals. He’s a fascinating character. Leonardo DiCaprio is also very good as Calvin Candie and is one of the few times during the last twelve years I wholeheartedly enjoyed his performance. Samuel L. Jackson’s character Stephen is the only aspect of the movie I think could potentially be considered an offensive part of the film since he’s basically that “Uncle Tom/Friendly Negro” archetype that floated around, but it didn’t bother me since there have been plenty of cases of slaves who were very protective and loyal to their masters and Jackson’s performance of the character felt very strong. Plus it’s nice to finally see him play someone around his own age (HEY- YOO!).

"Perhaps, after this unpleasantness, we can procure some milkshakes"
Walton Goggins is also in this film as one of Candie’s henchmen but doesn’t do much. He didn’t do much in Cowboys & Aliens either, even though I swear to God this man was born to play a leading role in a Western. STOP WASTING TIME AND GET ON IT, HOLLYWOOD!

Kerry Washington barely does anything here and her character is little more than a plot point (she’s still gorgeous though). Which is odd since Tarantino usually is really good at portraying awesome female characters. Actually there really isn’t much in the way of good women characters in this movie at all, come to think about it. The film itself could be considered too violent for most. This is where the Neo Grindhouse aspect of the film doesn’t help it. I was fine with it but it was a lot of blood everywhere and I can’t fault someone for not digging it. The last act, for me, was easily the weakest in the film. I don’t want to give a spoiler but I need to to make the point. Somewhere during the film [SPOILER ALERT] a two characters end up dead in what I assumed was the climax of the film. Instead the movie continued on and felt pretty flat for the rest of it. It’s like the movie hit the logical stopping point but instead of wrapping up in went on for another half hour or so until things limped to a conclusion (a violent one, but still…). It was just sort of odd.

But the thing I think bugged me the most was this one little aspect that turned into a huge thing for me; the masked henchmen of Calvin Candie that shows up a few times. First of all when you see the film it’s obvious she’s a woman and it seems like she’s concealing her true identity (and possibly her true gender). You see her and, because she stands out among the cast, you think she’d be important. But then we pretty much never see her again after that aside very briefly where she again looks a bit more interesting than the average toadie….but does nothing. At all. I looked into this more after I got home and found out that this was actually Zoë Bell, a Hollywood stuntwomen who by 2013 should have become a big name female action hero but for some insane reason it hasn’t happened (she’s probably best known as playing herself in Death Proof). Obviously if Bell was cast it meant this character was meant for great things because Tarantino is big fan of hers. It turns out that this mysterious masked woman originally had a whole subplot devoted to her that was cut for time and most of it wasn’t even filmed. But, for reasons I can only assume is that Tarantino is a dick, he left enough of her there to make her seem cool but with absolutely no pay off. This is totally a “Chekhov's Gun” not working out; what’s the point of having the character who is clearly supposed to be interesting and cool hang around in the background if they are never going to do a goddamn thing for the whole film?

Oh hey, this looks like a pretty cool character
Also Tarantino gives himself the worse cameo he’s ever done in this flick. And considering that most people agree his cameos (both in and out of his movies) are pretty goddamn bad and self-indulgent you can kind of guess what I must think about this one.

Django Unchained is a very good movie. If I had managed to see it before I wrote my Top Ten Movies of 2012 blog it would have made it on there and pushed Safety Not Guaranteed off. Regardless the flick was action packed, had strong characters, good acting and great dialogue; it’s really all you need in any film like this. It’s not perfect by any means and it’s not particularly historically accurate but it’s still one of Tarantino’s best films. Before seeing this film I suspected the controversy surrounding it was overblown and after seeing it for myself I am certain it was. I highly recommend this film; consider it an upper tier of its score. Everyone will not like it, as it caters to specific tastes, but if you are one of those people who share a taste in movie as a guy who dedicated his film career to making as many spiritual successful to 1970s genre film as he can you will love this movie.

When you boil this movie to its core it's really about friendship
(And, um, also about *AHEM* slavery)
Django Unchained gets 4 out 5 Adorable Pandas.


-Brutal action

-Greta dialogue

-Some great performances

-A rare “Western” that stars a black man


-The last act is disappointing

- Broomhilda is nothing more than a plot device

-Casts Zoë Bell in what was obviously supposed to be an awesome part but then proceeded to do exactly nothing with her


  1. Zoe was pretty bummed about not doing her scenes. Still, since many people were upset about how long this movie was and Tarantino really didn't want it to be two films, it makes sense. Rumor has it, she'll be in Django II if there is one. Why? Because Xena makes everything more fun.

    1. Oh I understand why he would not do her scenes. My real problem is that I feel like since the character was there at all and looked awesome we basically got this great teaser but no payoff.

      Tarantino could do a sequel some day but he has an amazingly bad track record when it comes to sequels and spin-offs. Since I never got "The Vega Brothers" or "Kill Bill Vol. 3" ("Kill Beatrix"?) I'm not willing to get my hopes up for Django II.


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