Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review | Django Unchained

Can slavery ever be a fantasy?
The name Quentin Tarantino makes me anxious. His films has always struck a chord with mass audiences and not just hardcore cinephiles and critics from his violent aesthetic to his passion of film integrated on the screen, making him one of the greatest directors of his generation. Watching Django Unchained, I have at least some anticipation coming into this movie while I had some skepticism.

Tarantino for a while had reached a peak in his career after he made his first two films (i.e. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) or maybe when he made Jackie Brown. Now he makes movies that are about revenge based on Asian action cinema, spaghetti western and B-movies, especially blaxploitation. I have a problem with his last films Kill Bill: Parts I and II and Inglorious Basterds. Don't get me wrong, I still liked those movies particularly with the former. My beef happens to be that he's a pure example of style over substance followed by his abidance with his storylines becoming so simplistic, reaching from beginning to the end. His passion for film becomes overbearing and derivative as it's only there to say that he knows how much of an impact it had on the scope of cinema. Kill Bill was fun at best, but with the two parts, the whole movie is very uneven, it's no doubt why there's not a heap of love for his film. Inglorious Basterds uses the same plot device, but it's overwhelmed by scenes featuring subtitles that are just downright boring and overacted. But both films had a lot of merit and this is supposed to have at least some aspects I liked.

Django Unchained however is Tarantino's attempt to be realistic and honest; in many interviews he had stated that he had always wanted to make a statement on slavery particularly in the Civil War era until Abraham Lincoln abolished it completely. But his take is going to be executed as a genre film. Like Inglorious Basterds, this is more of a fantasy rather than a history lesson under the style of the filmmaker we have already known for. But in the case of Django Unchained, it may be perhaps his weakest film to date.

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a retired German dentist turned bounty hunter offering to free one slave that is Django (Jamie Foxx). Under his wing, Django learns to become a savior of all slaves by killing the most wanted criminals and many other slave owners as he takes on revenge on the men who abducted his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She's being held by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), who is soft spoken, charming yet psychotic. As they enter his world, his dangerous capabilities take over as his caretaker (Samuel L Jackson) takes a suspicion on them.

The main part of my disappointment with this film is exactly the same problem I had with Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill - it is spectacularly mediocre. But before I get into that, I'll just say some good things about the film.

In all of his catalog, Tarantino has a knack for stylistic dialogue that often clicks with you once you finish watching and here, this is very transparent with a very high amount of slick confidence as spoken by many of its characters, despite the gratituous use of the n word. Thanks to that, much of the performances particularly with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo Dicaprio are well convicted. Waltz, employing the charming, yet dangerous schtick he once brought as Hans Landa, is exceptional here, but Dicaprio is a scene-stealer embodying his villainous role with a great amount of charisma. The story is very even sticking with its motivation to bring Django's wife to justice; There is also one humorous scene featuring all the KKKs featuring not one, but two blink-and-you'll-miss cameos. Tarantino integrates many homages to spaghetti westerns and B movies particularly the movie Django. Not to mention that he can pull off intense, bloody setpieces that would have you on the edge of your seat.

Which leads to the biggest fault of the film - it's unrestrained. There's a limit for self-indulgence taken by filmmakers, but Tarantino crossed this film so many times before and this is one of them. Firstly, the integration of genres felt derivative and transform as an imitation of it instead of a tribute. While his passion for cinema is there, it feels really unoriginal and uninspired for a modern audience. The story felt more fanatical than realistic, but maybe it's the ambition Tarantino had going. He had shown the ugliness of slavery, but to a point where it comes out of nowhere. From a standpoint in editing, the portrayal felt clumsy and emotionally forced. E.g. - we see a scene of Christoph Waltz then we cut into a guy being pulled by vicious dogs for two seconds, afterwards cutting back to him. It also shows his inability to bring an agenda which to say there is one means that you're giving a film a disservice. The n word may seem harmful against African Americans but at the end of the day it's very fragile and it can only happens to individuals which often occur in Django Unchained.

The soundtrack is surprisingly poorly placed and does not fit into the movie at all given that Tarantino does place so much music with such coolness. There's a mashup of James Brown and Tupac that comes out of SPOILER: a shootout in which Jamie Foxx shoots a lot of white people after Waltz, Dicaprio and many of his companions are shot dead. I'll admit while that intergration of music is badass and cool, it feels lazy. If you're one of the few people who edits videos at an amateur best, you can do that with every action scene. E.g. - the shootout in The Matrix played out along with the music of Knife Party. A track from Rick Ross is also apparent and it turns the movie into its own head.

Unfortunately, the worst part is that Django Unchained have neglected its African American characters so it comes off as irony from many perspectives. 1) When the movie attempts to address a political issue that had oppressed a race for many generations and the outcome is the characters not having to be fleshed out and 2) when the white characters are more interesting than the blacks. Jamie Foxx plays the title character who has little to do, despite having some motivation to save his captured wife. He lacks the chemistry with Waltz's character, then again it's because he has to be trained as a bounty hunter. Django has a mere ten lines of dialogue and his character is only fully framed by the beginning of the last act. Kerry Washington's role is to be the damsel in distress and also have been offered nothing other than screaming. She is basically a macguffin to remind us that this is how Django's motivation is set out. But even worst, Samuel L Jackson seems to overact as Steven, Candie's mentor whose established as a boorish, one-dimensional cartoon but then grow as the next villain of the film. Also Tarantino is on-screen doing an Australian accent making much of his style more crazy than first thought

Overall, Django Unchained is a disappointment. While the pacing is even, the performances from Dicaprio and Waltz are great, I feel like it fails to live up to the goals Tarantino had put in. The more I think about Django, the more I thought his imitators such as Oliver Stone and Martin McDonough had put much control on their work. I do see I'm in the minority when it comes to this film, as everybody believes it to be one of his best work.

But coming back to the question, can slavery ever be a fantasy? Hmm.... not quite.

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