The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Friday, January 4, 2013

Belated Django Unchained Review

Just saw Django Unchained...almost didn't go. I hadn't been too crazy about Tarantino's work after Pulp Fiction; thought Jackie Brown was just kinda dull, and that although Kill Bill  had some nifty action, the structure was awful, a series of big scenes, some good, some bad, with no real connecting glue, and an incredibly anti-climactic finale. Death Proof struck me as rather trivial, and also, in the theatrical version, they cut out my favorite thing, namely the lap-dance. Inglorious Basterds was yet another series of hit-and-miss sequences punctuated by insufficient amounts of admittedly excellent violence...the flick set up a series of expectations and then trashed a lot of them. Also, with its completely revised history (including Hitler being MP-40'd right in the face, and the Third Reich going down in 1944) the thing struck me as oddly reminiscent of Samurai Cat in the Real World.

Anyway, everything I was hearing about Django, even from people who liked it, who were the clear majority, made it sound like typical latter-day Tarantino, chock full of the characteristics that had begun to irritate me. To top it off, you had all that stupid racist crap about how great it is to kill white people from Jamie Foxx. Still, I decided to go see the flick...principally because I have an abiding interest in Italian Westerns, and I could see from the trailers that  Lone Pine California, where I'd spent some time, was used as a backdrop. I wanted to viddy the Alabama Hills, all that granite again.

But I'm happy to report that I got more than nicely-lensed boulders out of the experience. Django is absolutely my favorite post Pulp Fiction Tarantino. I wasn't bored at all, which I was during large stretches of Basterds...perhaps it has to do with the fact that the 19th-cventury setting doesn't allow Tarantino to vapor about movies. Oh, he can crib a bunch of Ennio Morricone tracks (they're "western" music after all), but he can't have characters running off at the mouth about The White Hell of Pitz Palu, etc. Moreover, the film frequently demonstrates actual narrative doesn't have the stop-and-start quality that you had in Basterds. Even though there are some narrative hangfires (the movie goes on too long), you're still pretty satisfied at the end.

Now bear in mind that, whatever Tarantino thinks, the movie isn't much like a spaghetti western. Just feels like a completely different sort of beast, vastly sleazier and more violent, and set mostly in the American south. However, Italian westerns were basically rather deranged fantasies, so Django does have that in common with them. Even though it works pretty hard to convince you that it has something on its mind, the complete lack of interest in certain kinds of verisimilitude makes it difficult to take the thing too turns out that vastly separated areas of the US are strangely contiguous. Take that aforementioned Lone Pine biz. Supposedly, we're looking at Texas, whereas actually we're looking at the Sierras, which Texas is noticeably lacking in. At one point, as I recall, Lone Pine seems to be doubling as Tennessee. Then there's all this achingly Californian California stuff...gimme a break. It just makes the movie look cheap. Maybe it's a joke, but I dunno. And even if it is a joke, it's distracting and undermines the other material.

The movie's full of anachronisms and social arrangements that never existed, the most flagrant of which is the whole Mandingo thing, Mandingo fighting having been invented by a novelist named Kyle Onstott. In reality, you had slave prize fighters, such as Tom Molyneaux, but you never had all this gladiatorial fight to the death carnage...I'm not sure that Tarantino knows that, since he seems not to realize the difference between films and actual history. In his 1858-59 deep south theme park, he serves up dynamite, Henry Rifles, all sorts of cartridge guns,  ridiculous costumes, and that famous bust of Nefertiti, which hadn't been discovered (or forged?) yet. Nonetheless, I don't expect movie makers to get details right anymore. And Django frequently dispensed enough garish engaging nuttiness to drown out that nattering voice in the back of my head. I just found myself going with it most of the time.

Story has Django getting liberated from a couple of slave-traders by Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), a German expat who abandoned his trade of dentistry a while ago, and has taken up bounty hunting, even though he still travels about in a wagon with a big tooth on a spring on the roof...there's some initial shooting that caught my attention immediately. Whatever his flaws, Tarantino really knows how to direct slaughter, and has the good sense to work with the KNB-EFX guys, the prosthetics experts who wanted to make that movie of The Dead... anyway, I found myself thinking that I would like the movie, if only it featured a whole lot more butchery of that caliber, and it sure did. Among other things, the movie realy clicks as an ultraviolent exercise.

But it's also funny and well written for the most part, and has quite a bit of excellent characterization and acting. Waltz (the SD honcho from Basterds) is absolutely mesmerizing as Schultz, and it's amusing to see a movie where the only decent white guy in the midst of all these evil crackers is an urbane, civilized German. He's more interesting than Django, but that's okay, since he serves as a mentor for him, and Django develops steadily under his tutelage. The two strike up an arrangement...Django will help Schultz hunt down the vile Brittle Brothers and then accompany him for a while as an apprentice/assistant bounty hunter, after which they'll go free Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). It turns out that she's been purchased by the horrendous Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio) who maintains a stable of Mandingo fighting slaves at his plantation, Candieland. In what I believe is his first villain role (I might be mistaken) Di Caprio is extremely satanic, and you truly hate his guts, although he's partially overshadowed by his house-slave major domo Stephen, (Samuel L. Jackson). Stephen's real comfortable with the situation at Candieland, is smarter than his master, and gets real suspicious when Django and Schultz come around pretending to be in the market for some Mandingo talent. A bunch of cat-and-mouse ensues...there are some powerful scenes, most notably the reunion (overseen by Schultz) between Django and Broomhilda, and an increasingly nerve-wracking Candieland dinner. Ultimately, after much screwing-up of tension, there's an explosion of primo slaughter...

It's kind of a shame the film didn't end with that, though, and I feel the need to do some bitching. Spoilers follow of necessity...don't read any further if you don't want to know how things come down.

Di Caprio's death isn't sufficiently horrible. Oh, you have a nifty little tribute to Jack Palance's demise at the end of Il Mercenario, a "Zapata Western" helmed by Sergo Corbucci, the guy who did the original Django. But this rather pointless homage just isn't as spectacular as it needs to be, given the fact that Di Caprio is the head bad guy...his death almost reminds one of David Carradine's lackluster can-kick in Kill Bill, although  this is partially mitigated by the fact that various Candieland minions go out in much more splattery fashion.

The film just keeps stumbling on after this point. Not only has the main heavy been killed, Schultz gets it almost immediately afterwards, and he's our favorite interest in the succeeding goings-on was drastically reduced. Also, following the huge shoot-out, Django gets captured, and is about to be castrated right the hell to death, when Stephen intrudes and stops the proceedings, saying it would be a more terrible punishment if Django gets sent to work at a mine. Gimme a break. Basically, this is a really feeble maneuver to keep our hero from being neutered/killed. No effing way....our disbelief is reinforced, in addition, by the fact that Django quickly escapes from his new captors (improbable Australians, one of whom is played by porky Quentin in a vest). This sets up a second killfest which isn't as cool as the last one, although we're glad that Broomhilda is saved, and the final confrontation between Django and Stephen is good.  You get a couple of excellent explosions too, utililizing that anachronistic dynamite, then some very sharp dressage from Django before the fadeout.

All in all, I had a good time, and as I said, I wasn't expecting to. The Oscars this year are going to be really interesting. I expect Django's going to be a major contender...but I also liked Lincoln too, and Argo...I'm also expecting to enjoy Zero Dark Thirty, though I haven't seen it yet. Don't think I care about Les Mis, but what the hell...