Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: "Django Unchained" Suffers From Multiple Genre Personalities

Samuel L. Jackson

I am officially back from my two weeks hiatus. I want to thank you for being patient and I hope to continue to bring you updates and other entries detailing my thoughts on this upcoming Oscars ceremony, including predictions on Seth MacFarlane's performance, why Argo will win Best Picture, and quite possibly a Zero Dark Thirty review.  But for now, we look at director Quentin Tarantino's latest slave epic Django Unchained. Is it up to par with the other Best Picture nominees, and does it have what it takes to win big on Oscar Night?

One of the big draws of Tarantino's work is that he seems to admire cinema and even though he is arguably at times a plagiarist, he is in a class of his own. He has made a career out of being commercially successful while still being one of the most passionate movie supporters and maintaining a voice that hasn't been tampered with. While he had a brief series of nominations with Pulp Fiction in 1994, it wasn't until 2009's Inglourious Basterds that the Academy began showing him respect. The World War II tale of how a ragtag group of Jews took down Hitler became a Best Picture nominee and even saw Tarantino reach new commercial heights. With Django Unchained, he continues to surpass his own box office records and has even caused controversy over the depiction of slavery, and more notably, the nonchalant use of the word nigger. In many ways, this makes him a bold filmmaker and with his work at close to three hours, it is impressive that it has made close to $150 million in the United States. 

I still am personally shocked that it made Best Picture. I could see Best Original Screenplay and possibly Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor, but as I keep saying, I felt that the film would be too rampant with violence and racism for the elderly voters. However, as proven with the Coen Brothers' True Grit, the western genre is a personal favorite, going back to the days of John Ford. However, all of the speculation was established before I actually saw the movie. Being an adamant supporter of his films, I was almost sure that I would find something to enjoy about it. I did, but I also feel like Django Unchained may be problematic as a film and suggests that maybe what Tarantino needs is editing advice.

Without fail, the first 80 minutes are pure bliss. When Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) walks on camera with a wagon advertising dentistry, it almost seems like Tarantino nailed his own perverse spin on westerns. In the first 10 minutes, a man dies under a horse and Schultz, with his amazingly smooth voice, shoots a man. After meeting Django (Jamie Foxx) and introducing him to the bounty hunter occupation, the movie becomes the sloppy, revisionist history cousin to Inglourious Basterds that plays fast, hard, and pitch black funny. Tarantino has done it. He has taken his love of spaghetti westerns from Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone and has managed to make something fresh about it. It may not be incredibly deep, but it works as a loving homage to the westerns that have shown clear influence in his work.

For most of the 80 minutes, Christoph Waltz continues to prove why he may be one of the best things to happen to Tarantino. Waltz came to prominence with his Oscar winning role in Inglourious Basterds. Since, he has starred in fare like The Green Hornet and The Three Musketeers. While being the highlights of those, he hasn't exactly been able to translate his smooth bravado to any other director. Tarantino knows how to write Waltz into sounding like a gentleman with a high vocabulary without sounding pretentious. In fact, the way that Waltz doesn't seem to break a sweat is impressive, and only makes his character come across as more comical. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, is fine, but a little too soft spoken for the slavery superhero role. Waltz's sheer talent unfortunately overshadows Foxx in every way.

There are of course many great old analogies present in the story that show a lesser known side of Tarantino. The folk lore of German culture, phrenology, and references to the book version of "The Three Musketeers" all show just how much of a pop culture encyclopedia Tarantino has. He manages to make every element play to his advantage. He replaces the old western silent hero role with Foxx, and the results are juicy and pure cinema. Seeing him right the wrongs with shooting a series of ridiculous bagheaded racists is just pure fantasy. 

Then enters the problematic portion where the film stops being the western revisionist and becomes a long negotiation. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a racist plantation owner who enjoys watching Mandingo fights and bossing house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) around. Candie is probably the film's most problematic character. While it appears that DiCaprio is having a blast playing this live wire of a character, he also is never tonally consistent. One minute he is yelling "Where's my beautiful sister?" and the next, he is giving a long speech on phrenology. It makes sense why the character is there on the account that it helps to show the different facets of American racism of the time. However, it almost sacrifices everything that came before to get it.

Majority of the scenes involving Candie are done through long negotiations and analogies that while interesting, are a hassle to get through. This is an odd thing to say for Tarantino, whose opening to Inglourious Basterds was nothing but dialogue for 20 minutes and still very captivating. It feels like the discussion goes on for much longer than it does and Candie just cannot capture the same essence that Waltz brings to his character. This is a shame, as Tarantino is usually an  enjoyable dialogue writer.

Left to right: Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio
The film attempts to shoehorn in a very western ending, but what really needs to happen is a better edit. The profanity, while being defended as historically accurate, plays too much for laughs and overstays its welcome. The Candie scenes could have easily been cut down to the basic elements and still effectively told the story. The western revisionist style is juicy, but it feels like Tarantino is too loose on his own leash. He has too many impulses and wants to throw in as much as he can, which essentially drags the film down. This includes anachronistic Rick Ross tunes. There is just too much going on here. While it is great to see shout outs to Duck, You Sucker, it feels like it was at the expense of fluid narration. There is plenty to enjoy in this film, but it is by no means great and definitely one of Tarantino's weaker pieces that if edited down to two hours would have been another masterpiece.

How does the film bode for the Oscars? As established in the opening paragraph, I believe that Argo is set for Best Picture. In fact, I argue that if we were still in the days of five nomination slots, this would not have made the cut. In fact, I am surprised that it made it at all. It just feels a little too egregious for Best Picture. While I do admire that there are still directors who can boldly tell their vision and still be commercially successful, I think that it is too excessive and tonally haphazard. Where Inglourious Basterds had clarity and a love for film, I just feel like Tarantino tried to make a black superhero, but also tried to make something super racist that didn't quite clash well. The results are a little awkward, and I think that will keep it from Best Picture.

In fact, if you look at my votes, I do not have it down for a single win. I feel that it is deserving of its Best Original Screenplay nomination, but probably won't beat Zero Dark Thirty. However, after much consideration, the Best Supporting Actor field is a valid arena. Christoph Waltz is easily the essential piece to the story and keeps it from turning into a total mess. Since all of the nominees have won before, it is up in the air for who wins. While I think that Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln almost seems like a shoe-in, I think that Waltz is considerable competition. However, the buzz around Lincoln is what edges Jones ahead. In fact on statistics website Gold Derby, Jones leads the pack with odds of 8:5 while Waltz is behind Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) with odds of 11:2. It is anyone's race, though I still am bummed that Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) is now in fourth with odds of 6:1. 

Christoph Waltz
Do I feel like Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed this year? I actually think he was the worst part of the movie. His over the top performance was too much. He was enjoyable to watch, but the further into racist, bizarrely ignorant territory his character went, the harder it was to even accept it in the film's realm of cartoonish caricatures. While it is definitely a shame that DiCaprio has yet to win an Academy Award, this is not the film that should get him that honor. It feels at times like he is trying too hard and while the dialogue may essentially what drowns this movie in problems, DiCaprio is unable to deliver it with as much passion or humor as Christoph Waltz. While his nomination may seem a little crazy, it does make sense, since he did win the Golden Globe for the same role.

I don't mean to call Django Unchained a total disaster. The first 80 minutes are just promising enough to work as escapism. However, even the song cues are very haphazard. Rick Ross's "100 Black Coffins" just feels thrown in without intention. My eternal support of John Legend's "Who Did That to You" doesn't even shine that well in the film, though still is a travesty that it missed the Best Original Song category. However, I worry that this may be the turning point for Tarantino, who seems doomed to just make revisionist history films for the rest of his career. Even his defense that he is dissecting racism in a clever way doesn't seem like a strong enough defense. It just doesn't work in the realm of the movie. 

In closing, I feel like Django Unchained will probably walk home on Oscar Night empty handed. However, Christoph Waltz and the Best Original Screenplay nominations do stand more than a decent chance of pulling upsets. However, it seems unlikely that it will actually happen. I still do not understand the Best Cinematography nomination, but the film is all right. While I believe that the editing may not work because this is the first since long time collaborator Sally Menke's death, I still feel like there is too much in the air bludgeoning you in the head to be entertaining entirely. 

Is Django Unchained a step too far for Quentin Tarantino? Can Christoph Waltz pull an upset in the Best Supporting Actor category? Will this lead to the revival of anachronistic westerns?

1 comment:

  1. After seeing Argo taking home top prize at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, I'm now thinking Argo is gonna take home the top prize at the Oscars despite Ben Affleck's directing snub. Argo was an awesome movie - it had a good mix everything and it's definitely a crowd-pleaser unlike Lincoln - the pace was too slow, but the performances were excellent.