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Monday, January 14, 2013

Django Unchained

Before you even ask: Yes, I realize the Golden Globes were given yesterday evening; no, I did not watch the event; and no, I don't want to hear anything about it. I will be watching the ceremony tomorrow evening immediately after "work", so, until then, keep the information to yourselves, if you please.

The title requires no following explanation, which is typically preceded by a colon for those who are familiar with this blog. Indeed, the pinnacle of my year has finally arrived--immediately following Ted, this is the moment I've been voraciously anticipating ever since I've been informed of the film's existence. Django Unchained. More than once have I breathlessly brought up Quentin Tarantino's freshest film, and surely I have embellished each mention with emphasis on its unquestionably stunning quality. Every reference to the film has an exceedingly positive and vivacious connotation and denotation, overflowing with anticipated awe and stubborn compliments of how it will absolutely be a--what was it?--masterpiece. Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to sheer originality and brilliant dialogue, as each are both demonstrated in films such as Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds, easily two of my most adored films of all time. For Django Unchained, he recruits Jamie Foxx to portray the freed slave who gave the title its name, and familiar alum of Inglourious Basterds Christoph Waltz to portray a suave bounty hunter who takes Django in as his partner-in-crime. (Based on his first American film, one that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, I figured that the excellence in acting there would be present here as well. Christoph Waltz, I mean. He earned an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds. You know that.) As the sure-to-be memorable villain, Leonardo DiCaprio is summoned to play his very first evil role, an endeavor I was thrilled to behold and witness to be carried out flawlessly. Perhaps the wonderful actor would earn an Oscar for his sure-to-be vicious performance. He did not. With these factors in mind, as well as the controversial subject matter and the raw vision in which the film is to be documented, I was absolutely, without a single shred of a doubt, certain that I would relish Django Unchained from beginning to the very last minute. From that exaggerated opening, as well as the intermittent use of would-should-could prepositions (or adverbs), one can assume what I am reluctantly about to share. Yes, dearly beloved, it is sadly true: Django Unchained was a catastrophic disappointment.

Quite a sentence to begin with. Unfortunately, it is not far from the truth. Catastrophic is a term used to express my high expectations and forlorn reaction to the film. Indeed, forlorn was my reaction because it is an utter shame to witness your firm hopes shatter in front of you. That is exactly what happened as Django progressed at its steadily delaying pace. Another way of saying that the film was much longer than it should be. I really cannot begin to describe the flaws of this movie, solely because I am still stunned as to how my expectations did not exceed or even meet the actual result. Why did this have to happen? Couldn't Quentin Tarantino have recreated the awe-inspired edginess of Inglourious Basterds, adjusted for the Wild West setting? I understand that he wished to compose an homage to the spaghetti westerns of yore, but there is such a thing as passing the limit or simply giving a bloodier rendition of a film you enjoyed as a kid. And, believe you me, it was bloody. In the most obnoxious manner imaginable, Quentin Tarantino managed to make the blood burst upon the screen suddenly and pointlessly. While he is renowned for the graphic violence in his films, it was an artistic, masterful display of cinematography and, more importantly, timing. Here, in the Old West, blood seemed to explode from the impact of the bounty hunters' skillful gunshot from oblivion, as if the director just wanted to depict a bad-ass murder for the hell of it. And the blood looked a whole lot like red paint. Maybe that is yet another spaghetti western motif, but, for one who does not watch the genre, it was disturbingly amateur for a director I hold in such high regard. Rather than shielding myself from the horrific scenes of brilliant bloodshed, I cringed at the exaggerated display of paint splatter and cheesy farewell lines. "I like the way you die, boy." I realize that this is an allusion to how the mean old white man mistreated Django, but that is unnecessarily cheesy. Apologies to the renowned screenwriter.

Where are my manners? What of the story? The general idea is that a European bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz (smoothly portrayed by Christoph Waltz) enlisting a slave by the name of Django (pompously portrayed by Jamie Foxx) to assist him in apprehending the Brittle brothers, a gang of white men who, coincidentally, separated Django from his wife. Naturally, Django has a vendetta against them, which stirs him into helping a white man--though it does not take much time for Django to begin feeling superior to the whites. (This is merely what I personally gathered from watching the movie.) This marks the first half of the film, at which point I am genuinely curious and amused by the antics of the characters and situations. Like every Tarantino film I've encountered, there is a nifty dose of engrossing conversation and hilarity. The interesting dialogue, or monologue rather, is provided by Christoph Waltz, and is further enhanced by his soft, German intonation. He speaks slowly, for he is indeed foreign to the English language, yet steady enough and in such an articulate manner as to give the impression that he comprehends what he is saying as well as the influence it has on his listeners. In many instances, he resembles John Malkovich, singularly in tone of voice, as he appears to be amiable until he shocks you with malediction and fear. He, Christoph Waltz, first demonstrated this prodigious talent of transpiring speech in Inglourious Basterds. Unlike the aforementioned film, however, Christoph Waltz assumes the role of the "good guy" (or more suitably anti-hero which, in Tarantino's films, are considered the ones to root for) in Django Unchained. Amazingly enough, the Austrian actor achieves remarkable heights of his craft in the film, proving that he can portray both the hero (or anti-hero) and villain effortlessly. Though he is a better villain, considering the film in which he portrayed one of the most sinister villains in cinematic history. Nevertheless, Christoph Waltz was indubitably the greatest piece of an otherwise inadequate picture.

Don Johnson
Surprisingly amusing addition.


The second portion of the film--which upholds my overall assessment of it--takes place when Django and Dr. Shultz journey to find and rescue the freed slave's wife, Broomhilda, from captivity of a charmingly cruel plantation owner. Who might that be? Yes, indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio makes his appearance as the very brutal yet suave Calvin Candie, owner of the plantation called Candyland (clever title, I do declare). Interestingly and tragically enough, this marks the point where the film faces its irreversible decadence in quality and enjoyment. How, one may wonder, can the film just begin to decline at the very introduction of a character played by Leonardo DiCaprio? I ask myself that very question even now as I write. Frivolous musings, I'm afraid, for it is what it is. Anyway, Django and Dr. Shultz arrive under the pretense that they will purchase a Mandingo fighter* of Mr. Candie's for an astounding (and therefore exaggerated) $12,000. In addition to the Mandingo fighter, Dr. Shultz casually proposed to purchase Broomhilda, since she spoke his native German, which was the ever-so sneaky plan hatched by the two bounty hunters. Oddly, the apparent scheme went unnoticed by Calvin Candie, who I imagine would have been much smarter than that considering his position, but his house slave, Stephen, caught whiff of the deceit. (Strange how a house slave sensed the suspicious nature of their visit and a wealthy goddamn plantation owner did not.) Being a loyal servant, Stephen (ruthlessly and disgustingly portrayed by Tarantino's Pulp Fiction alum Samuel L. Jackson) reveals his suspicions to his boss, who does not take the news lightly.

Samuel L. Jackson
Just how repulsively calculating he appears to be.


Enraged by this duplicity, Candie demands the twelve-thousand for Broomhilda, or he will kill her right there. At the dinner table. Now, this scene is truly intense and even deserving for some award recognition for Leonardo DiCaprio in this evil display: He calmly begins his wrath by explaining the schematics of the skull, then illustrates his lesson by nearly smashing Broomhilda's head in rage. I must admit, I did jump a little, for it was profound scene of meticulously crafted monologue and violence. Well, maybe not as far as meticulous, but definitely a moment of entertainment. Regrettably, this was the lone instant where Leonardo DiCaprio presented himself as a worthy candidate for an Oscar win. This is a wretched and perplexing realization, for, from what I gathered from the trailer (which by my definition is an organized and accurate preview of the film in question), he was supposed to deliver the one of the greatest performances of his career. Also, knowing Quentin Tarantino's talent for creating devious and hypnotic villains, I expected a Southern reincarnation of Colonel Hans Landa, even the possibility of the writer outdoing himself with Calvin Candie. Alas, it was not meant to be. It seems that the loathsome charm I witnessed in the preview was, actually, genuine kindness extended to his guests. That 'ol Southern hospitality was real back then, albeit to fellow men of his race. Even to his colored company he was pleasant enough, considering that he was a plantation owner. And, until his house slave informs him of the visitors' furtive intentions, I perceived him to be a bit foolish, which immediately disqualifies him from being any remarkable villain. I am ashamed to say that it is fortunate that Leonardo DiCaprio did not receive an Oscar nomination, for, if he won, it would have been a pity Oscar. And he most certainly deserves his due.

From here on, there are significant spoilers. As if there weren't any prior to this courtesy warning.

The film then begins to approach what will be the revelation of this film's indecency--the peak of its perversion that I thought I have already begun to feel. Following Candie's livid outburst, the time to seal the contract that would free Broomhilda had dawned upon them all. Once everything was finalized, once Dr. Shultz and his accomplices were granted the relieving gift of freedom when they deserved death--this is when Dr. Shultz, driven by morality and conscience, decides to act on it. Provoked by Calvin Candie's hypocritical "Southern hospitality" (since he had shown his true colors the evening before), Dr. Shultz shoots him. Dead. Then, after apologizing to Django for his weakness, Dr. Shultz is shot by one of Candie's henchmen. Dead. Once the single two intriguing characters die, the film reaches its pinnacle of inane violence, with Jamie Foxx remaining as the only "good guy" to literally kill everyone left. Seriously, he, alone, kills absolutely every person left in the movie, aside from his wife obviously. There is an additional scene (where Quentin Tarantino cameos for no reason, other than to flaunt his awful Southern accent) that has no solid sense in being a part of the film. Terrible job of editing shines bright right about here, as well as the entire ending. Oh, and somewhere within the chaotic haze that is the clumsy conclusion, Django kills the scheming, evil Stephen, who, just before exploding with Candyland, shouts, "Django!" in a cheesy exit line undoubtedly familiar in spaghetti westerns. Now, this ridiculously unbelievable display of the finale is, surely, another homage to those old westerns: One vigilante emerges, soaked in the blood of his enemies, only to ride off in the sunset on horseback with his girl. The end. After more than two-and-a-half hours, the end.

To finally conclude this painful-to-write post, I must express my embarrassment at the former exclamations of this film's mastery. While there were a few moments in which I was enthralled, there were not nearly enough to support an overall judgment of excellence. Just to clarify, the judgment was, in actuality, disappointing and unfulfilled. Quentin Tarantino could have made so much more out of this picture, for it clearly had potential, otherwise I would be skeptical from the beginning. Perhaps he was simply determined to honor the beloved westerns of his childhood, or maybe, like me, he dreads editing and the possibility of cutting out valuable scenes he had already envisioned. (Valuable, of course, to him alone.) There was one scene that I would like to mention, for it was definitely the best and most entertaining one throughout the entire production. The scene where Don Johnson and Jonah Hill, among others, gather together at night wearing white hoods over their faces (obviously hinting towards the Ku Klux Klan, which had not yet been "invented") was a comedic work of brilliance of Tarantino's part. This was a scene that proved the director-screenwriter still harnesses creative ingenuity deep within, one that reflected onto (or unto) the rest of Django Unchained the potential to be a magnificently written picture. Alas, this hilarious scene revealed only a glimmer of what the film could have been, and a sharper comparison to what is lamentably was in fact: an absolute misfire.

Most artistic scene--split of a second.


*Mandingo fighters were male slaves who were trained to fight to the death. This was a sick form of entertainment for such sick white folk as Calvin Candie. History is history.

2 comments:

  1. An absolute misfire, huh? Hmmm...yeah, I can see what you mean.

    I'll be the first to admit that I named Django Unchained as my movie of the year (top honors out of a pool of seven -- what a haul!), and I managed to find some major satisfaction out of it. I actually interpreted the movie not as a celebration of violence, but a warning against it. So much is gained and done by way of conversation that the gunplay at times seems unnecessary, and even unwelcome; it's the power of the spoken word that gives Schultz and ESPECIALLY Django more power than a gun ever could.

    ...Except that theory's weakened a bit in the presence of such a bloody finale. I can see why Tarantino and company presented it, but I can also understand why you might see it as something of a betrayal. I saw it as a way to balance out violence and non-violence, with the former being a "last resort" sort of measure...but then again, I wonder if that's just a way of apologizing for a fault.

    Well, it can't be helped, I guess. I don't think my opinion of the movie is going to change anytime soon; still, it's a shame that things didn't exactly work out in your eyes. Better luck next time, huh?

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    1. I, too, named this at the very top of my list for the films of the year, as can be seen through several previous posts. By the negative, displeased tone of this post, I do not mean to so much as criticize but to express my displeasure at Quentin Tarantino's latest endeavor. Especially considering that this proceeds Inglourious Basterds--an absolute masterpiece of cinema. While I was dreadfully disappointed, it is apparent to me that many, including the hard-to-please critics, oppose my own tragic opinion. Perhaps, years from now once the expectations have fully dissipated, I will rewatch Django Unchained and view it in a more appealing light. One can only hope.

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