Friday, December 21, 2012

Django Unchained

Django Kinda Sorta On A Short Leash, Via Tarantino

Christoph Waltz as King Schultz and Jamie Foxx as Django in Quentin Tarantino's western satire "Django Unchained".  The Weinstein Company


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, December 21, 2012

Since the world didn't end as promised
today I unfortunately have to review Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained", the most miserable and painful film experience I had in a movie theatre in 2012.  Mr. Tarantino's spaghetti western, full of the flavors of Sergio Leone, is set, no less, on a plantation, among other venues, in the South just prior to the Civil War in America. 

Amidst the degradation of many enslaved blacks, just one, Django (Jamie Foxx), is selected by bounty hunter King Schultz (the irrepressible Christoph Waltz) -- for his freedom to be bought.  A pact is made; Schultz and Django trek across the South to find Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  They accost Big Daddy (a curious appearance by Don Johnson), then the charmingly villainous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slave owner of a Tennessee (or is it Mississippi?) plantation where Broomhilda has been branded, whipped and presumably raped.  Candie delights himself with his own pleasures: hulking, bloodied barebacked black men wrestling, biting and killing each other for sport at his "Cleopatra House".  Candie's house slave Stephen, well-played as a loathsome, despicable being by Samuel L. Jackson, aids and abets the haranguing of Broomhilda and Django, dutifully and scornfully, often not at Candie's behest.  

Meant ostensibly as satire, "Django Unchained", a richly visual and lurid spectacle, spirals out of control, devoid of the focus, energy and absorption a nearly three-hour movie requires.  Mr. Tarantino's writing, so sharp in films like "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglourious Basterds", is weak and tendentious here making scenes monotonous and tepid.  The outrageousness of "Django Unchained" is simply that -- outrage and hyper violence -- with no character shaping, ideas, tension or any satirical point to make except to cheerlead and reinforce the era's racism against, and hatred of, blacks.  Slavery inherently involved those things but the cartoonish way in which they are depicted will offend many.  I felt alienated and insulted by "Django Unchained", an immensely humiliating and deeply offensive film. 

Worse yet, Mr. Tarantino makes the fatal mistake of trivializing slavery in "Django Unchained".  Slavery is used as a backdrop rather than a central theme to be confronted head-on for any satirical points the director wishes to make.  Mr. Tarantino dares only to go to purely sensationalistic and outrageous places but never means to sincerely explore them.  The plantations, the naked black men and women, the super-excessive use of the word "nigger", the butt-ignorant whites, are all a show, a gaiety, part of the objectification that the director, as much as Candie himself, all too often revels and delights in. 

Mr. Tarantino indulges Mr. Jackson's Stephen as a conduit for some moviegoers to hide their own prejudices and camouflage them in Stephen, as the character frequently uses the epithet mentioned in this review.  Hardly a scene goes by where it isn't spoken by someone, anyone, everyone.  It's a painful, deadening experience and its repeated use is a bludgeon.

Slavery, like the Holocaust, are third-rail subjects for the big screen.  If one makes a film on those subjects, either in documentaries ("Shoah") or feature dramas ("Schindler's List"), careful, faithful exploration of those subjects should be pursued.  Even if Steven Spielberg used the horrors of the Holocaust to augment a true story, he did so as a supplementing sobering impact that serves to devastate not trivialize.  Mr. Tarantino isn't interested in any substance beyond sheer entertainment. 

Satire is inherently risky; it is likely to be misunderstood, or its runways overshot.  I don't think Mr. Tarantino had a landing strip when he made "Django Unchained".  He throws everything up against a wall and doesn't care if it sticks.  Rather than a satire on a more generalized subject like race (see Spike Lee's "Bamboozled", Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles", or this year's "The Intouchables"), he chose -- and as an artist he has the right to -- a specific, horrific and unforgivable American sin: slavery, to satirize. 

Still, slavery on film is a risk and a bridge too far.  Mr. Tarantino wouldn't dare touch the Holocaust or set "Inglourious Basterds" in Auschwitz or Buchenwald, and for good reason.  The Holocaust, like slavery, is sacred territory.  Mr. Tarantino's sensibilities as displayed on film aren't tailored to the kind of serious treatment such harrowing historical events require.  (Could you imagine the reaction if Mr. Tarantino did a satire about the Holocaust, setting it in Auschwitz and engineering it in the way he did "Django Unchained"?  Would Harvey Weinstein distribute that film?  Would anyone?)

Though a "free" man, Django, as the film's purported lead figure, is shackled -- held hostage by a movie that should have been renamed "White Man's Burden" (no offense to Desmond Nakano, who in 1995 attempted to grapple with race and race-reversal.)  Most of "Django Unchained" is a showcase for its two white lead actors, Mr. Waltz and Mr. DiCaprio, to pontificate and posture over "their" blacks.  Django, played with percolation and blandness by Mr. Foxx, is a relatively sedate figure overall, an often diluted and impotent side character biding his time before unleashing his vengeance.  By the time he does -- well into the film's third hour -- his "revenge" rings meaningless and hollow, further trivializing a real-life genocide and Django's own reason for being. 

The "D" in his name, Django says, "is silent", and for a lot of the film so is he.  So much more of the film's time is spent with Schultz and Candie, to the point where Django's quest is meaningless and gets stopped in its tracks on a narrative basis.  There's a poor attempt to identify Schultz's sympathy with the plight of those he willingly traffiks in -- a rapid edit -- that exploits rather than conveys a sense of concern, exposing this disingenuous film.  The love story between Django and Broomhilda is subjugated to such a degree -- submerged by the violence and Schultz/Candie interplay -- that it fails to resonate.  (Ms. Washington is ineffective, and the film's take on slavery is all about cosmetics and optics.)

Django isn't a political figure; he doesn't stop to rescue any of the fellow black men seen shackled together even after their white slavemasters have been dispatched.  He doesn't exhort them to choose freedom and liberate themselves and their race amidst the atrocity of slavery.  He's no Nat Turner.  Django's "revenge" is muted, trivial, used more as fantasy-stroking and bizarre titillation, limited to a small scope, and with little intelligence or aforethought.  He's a mascot, belonging to that long tradition of racially stereotyped black movie characters ("The Green Mile", "Legend Of Bagger Vance").  He's not even as potent as the so-called blaxploitation figures that Mr. Tarantino has romanticized in the past.  As a character Django does more harm than good for his own cause, and is arguably the most insidious character in Mr. Tarantino's messy, unwieldy and gratuitous enterprise.  After an exhausting two-plus hours of insults and continuous, deadening objectifying, fifteen minutes of gunfire makes for a small-minded and pathetic sign-off that feels anti-climactic and hollow.

A Tennessean, Mr. Tarantino, whose "Django Unchained" isn't necessarily espousing a political viewpoint (at least not in the way Melvin Van Peebles does with "Sweet Sweetback's Baaadaassss Song"), has a habit of depicting the dehumanization of black men on the big screen, objectifying them as tools of white oppression or of some white men's peculiar, sexual obsession with the bodies of black men.  We see this excessively here, including an unnecessary scene with dogs tearing at a black man's flesh, and in "Pulp Fiction" (Phil LaMarr, Ving Rhames), "Jackie Brown" (Chris Tucker).  It's likely the director has known white men like this.  After all, there's a deep and unmistakable history of dismemberment of black men in the South.  In every way "Django Unchained" is the equivalent of what Denzel Washington has discussed as "The N----- They Couldn't Kill", a role that he turned down years ago.  Mr. Washington's reasoning, as he details a pitch meeting he attended with several Jewish movie executives, can easily be applied to "Django Unchained".

The bottom line is that Mr. Tarantino, an avowed student of cinema, uses the medium to imitate and not necessarily groundbreak, or even enhance his ability as a director.  The problem is that "Django Unchained" shows us a lot but informs us little about the experiences being depicted onscreen.  Mr. Tarantino's films talk loudly and vividly but this new one says nothing.  We are removed from the era of the film because the director isn't committed or invested in it beyond building laugh lines that mostly don't land.  Slavery in "Django Unchained" is all background noise, the stuff of jokes.  Slavery isn't a joke.  (Nor is "Birth Of A Nation" or those Mickey Rooney scenes in "Breakfast At Tiffany's".)  Mr. Tarantino is a better writer than a director, but both executions fire blanks here.  The film isn't tailored to a shorter length and is paralyzed by its own meanness. 

For Mr. Tarantino "Django Unchained" represents a colossal off-day, and a hideous mistake.

Also with: Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Dana Michelle Gourier, Nichole Galicia, Laura Cayouette, Ato Essandoh.

"Django Unchained" opens on Christmas Day across the U.S. and Canada.  The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.  The film's running time is two hours and 45 minutes.  

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