Monday, February 4, 2013

Movie – Django Unchained (2012)

I’m not a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films.  While I’ve liked most every one I’ve seen (2007’s Death Proof being a big exception), I’ve never loved them quite as much as many others have.  It’s understandable then that I went into Django Unchained with interest, but without any real expectations.  It turned out that I liked the film a lot.  It is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.  In fact, this may be heresy to fans of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but I consider Django Unchained to be the best film Tarantino has done to date.

It opens with one of the greatest character introductions I have ever seen.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rides up to a couple of men transporting slaves across Texas in 1858.  He tells them he is interested in one of the slaves – a man who turns out to be Django (Jamie Foxx).  After coming out on top in this exchange (I won’t spoil how), he then rides into town with Django and almost immediately shoots the sheriff.  He then proceeds to get out of that not only alive, but with the local Marshall giving him money.  Again, I won’t spoil how, but these two scenes establish just what kind of man Schultz is, and he is that rarest of movie creatures – an intelligent badass.

He needs Django to identify three men he is looking for.  After they are found he takes Django under his wing, teaching him skills he will need to partner up with him.  Django reveals that what is driving him is that he was married to Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), but the two were sold away from each other after an escape attempt.  The German immigrant Schultz is fascinated by the fact that her name is Broomhilda.  He explains to Django the Germanic legend of how Broomhilda was put on a mountain with a dragon guarding her and how Siegfried was able to rescue her from this captivity.  He then calls Django a new Siegfried.

Schultz agrees to help Django find and free his wife.  They discover she is now owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  They come up with a con to misdirect Candie away from their true aim of acquiring Broomhilda by pretending to be interested in “Mandingo fighting”.  They travel to Candie’s plantation to look over his fighters, but are really there to discover if Broomhilda is still alive, and if she is, to get her out of there.  Things don’t quite go according to plan.  They discover Candie’s head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) may just be a more dangerous antagonist than Candie himself.  It’s not a Tarantino movie if all hell doesn’t break loose at some point, and this film is no exception.

You may have heard about the controversy regarding this film and its use of the then-common word used to refer to black people.  Spike Lee was offended by a white man (Tarantino) writing a script with it in it and by its use in the film by both white and black characters.  While Tarantino is not who you’d think of when it comes to historical accuracy (i.e. Inglorious Basterds), he is correct in this case, both in using it and in how he uses it.  Look no further than the most important television miniseries ever made – Roots.  Its characters also used the word and no one said that they shouldn’t, precisely because it showed how repellant it was.  Django Unchained does the same thing.

The movie has a ton of cameos in it, including some that you’d have to be a true film geek like Tarantino to get.  One that I did not know until afterwards was a scene where a man asks Django how he spells his name.  Django explains, and then tells him the “D” is silent.  The man responds that he knows.  It seemed like a random scene to me, but it turns out the other man was played by Franco Nero who played Django in the original 1966 spaghetti western of the same name.

Despite the topic of the film there is quite a bit of humor in the movie.  My favorite funny scene involves a group of Regulators (a sort of proto-KKK that existed prior to the Civil War) going after Schultz and Django.  They are wearing bags over their heads with eyeholes cut out.  There’s a whole conversation about the practicality of this with it limiting their vision, and a man whose wife made the bags getting offended.  I was laughing out loud.  There are also small moments, like how Schultz always introduces not only himself, but his horse as well, and when he does the horse politely nods in introduction when its name is spoken.

You can’t have a Tarantino movie without some interesting music in it.  He pulled his usual trick of using some semi-obscure 60s and 70s songs, but the best thing he did was not only use some existing Ennio Morricone music, but to even get him to write some new music for this film.  It definitely gave the whole “spaghetti western” vibe to the film, although Tarantino refers to it as a “southern” since almost all of it takes place in Tennessee and Mississippi.

The film has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Waltz.  Right now Waltz is definitely my favorite to win, although he was really the co-lead of the film with Foxx.  Considering that he has already won in the same category for Inglorious Basterds, if I were him I would never say no to Tarantino in the future if he tells Waltz he has a role for him in an upcoming movie.

Some people have said that DiCaprio deserved a nomination, too.  I don’t have any strong feelings on this one way or the other, although I’ve got to give the man credit for unblinkingly continuing a scene after he cut his hand for real smashing a glass.  The blood all over his hand in this scene is his own.  His character was deliberately over the top and DiCaprio certainly chewed the scenery in this film. 

Much like in Pulp Fiction where Travolta got all kinds of attention, while Samuel L. Jackson got little, I feel Django Unchained might be experiencing some of the same dynamic.  To me, Jackson’s character of the head house slave who has a lot more going on than you might expect, is far more interesting than DiCaprio’s obviously evil slave owner.  As an aside, I just have to say that when Jackson first was shown in close up, scowling down at Django riding a horse onto the plantation, I swear to God all I could think of was the Grinch scowling down at Whoville from his mountain.

If you are not a person who watches a film through the credits, you may want to for this one.  There is a short scene after the credits that has a humorous reference back to an earlier scene in the film.  And you also get to see all the cameos in the film when the cast is listed.  I missed Russ Tamblyn, but noticed his daughter Amber Tamblyn.  Russ is credited as “Son of a Gunfighter”, which is a reference to the 1965 western that he starred in.  Amber is credited as “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter”, which made me laugh.

While there is certainly violence in this film, it is not as over the top as other Tarantino works such as Kill Bill.  If you are the kind of person that is offended by bad words, no matter what context they are used in, then this movie will probably bother you.  For everyone else, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. I didn't know the blood on Leo's hand was an accident. Interesting.

    My favorite scene was the one where Christoph Waltz starts talking about the legend of Brunhilde and Django pulls up a seat because he wants to hear the rest of the story. Reminded me of kindergarteners gathering around a teacher. I also thought the music was great.

    1. Good point about Django's interest in the story. I remember noticing that. Thanks.

  2. Good review Chip. Everybody in this movie was great and it's a shame that Leo didn't get a nomination, although I am happy Waltz at least got one instead. Still, Leo would have been a better choice for me.

    1. Having seen Argo, as much as I liked that film I don't see the need for Arkin to have received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in it. That could have gone to either DiCaprio (for you) or Jackson (for me) from this film.

  3. I don't get emotionally invested in the award nominations anymore. I'm usually disappointed by many of their selections, or lack thereof.

    Django is my favorite 2012 movie to date. I'd love to see something that surpasses it, but that's unlikely. Only Life of Pi reached the same level for me.


    1. My next post will be one ranking the nine Best Picture nominees now that I have reviewed each one. You will see that I agree Django is the best of them. Right now it's my number 3 film for the year, with The Avengers and Safety Not Guaranteed as 1 and 2 respectively. I still have more 2012 films to see before I post my Top 10 somewhere around the end of February/beginning of March.