Wednesday, December 26, 2012

HOLIDAY MOVIE-REVIEW BONANZA: Number 1 - Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson (166 min.)

We have come to a point now where a Quentin Tarantino film is going to be an "event" in the cinematic world each and every time one is released.  We have also reached a certain level of quality with Tarantino films, that we know each one will be good.  That is no longer the argument.  What is up for debate now is where his most recent film fits in his collective body of work, how good it is comparatively speaking.  I still don't quite know where I would place Django Unchained in the legend that has become Tarantino filmography.  There are moments of incomparable brilliance throughout, but it's as if the pieces in between those brilliant moments lulled me into a feeling of impatience.  Just when I was ready to discount the film, the structure and the mood would shift in just the right way.  Perhaps that is the genius at work here.

The easy way to describe Django Unchained is to call it Tarantino's "slavery film," much like Inglourious Basterds is casually labeled his "Nazi film."  Sure, that's the quickest way to sum up the events, but the richness of detail, of dialogue, of action and violence - and boy is violence aplenty here - is shortchanged in such a scant description.  Django is a slavery film, firmly against slavery but still not afraid of using that most offensive word a shocking amount of times.  But it also has some wonderful characters, strikingly (and unexpectedly) beautiful cinematography, and supporting performances for the ages.  And, as I mentioned before, if you squirm in your seat at the sound of the "N" word, look elsewhere.

Our hero, Django, is played by Jamie Foxx in one of his best perfromances since 2005 when he turned in the double whammie of Collateral and Ray.  Django is a slave in the opening scene, freed by Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist who is really a bounty hunter and needs Django to help him hunt down a band of scoundrels.  Christoph Waltz changes sides this time and plays the hero, or at least part of the hero, and owns his role as the dentist.  Django of course goes along with the good Doctor and is a free man.  The two bounty hunters collect their money along their adventures and, after some fire-side chats, Django discloses that his wife, Broomhilda, has been sold into slavery and taken to the "Candyland" plantation in Mississippi.  This plantation, the Candyland, is one each and every slave knows about, and is run by a rather flamboyant Southerner named Calvin Candide.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Candide, and he is one of two marvelous supporting performances in the picture.  He is a diabolical slave owner and a callous man, no doubt, but somehow through Tarantino's writing he is a charmer.  Delivered in a burgundy suit and darkened eyes, Candide is DiCaprio's finest work as an actor, and any Supporting Actor award which doesn't go his way is a mistake.  Unless, of course, that award winds up in the hand of Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the privileged house, ahem, "N," Candide's right-hand man.  Jackson hasn't had this much fun in a role in several years.

Nevertheless, the story involves Django and Dr. Schultz infiltrating the plantation of Candide and retrieving his wife, Broomhilda, played in a limited role by Kerry Washington.  The second half of the film involves the deceptive abilities of the dentist and his companion, and much blood is shed in the final act.  Of course, this is a major reduction of a Tarantino film, as each and every frame is loaded with detail of dialogue, texture, and humor.  And as usual there is a scene where food or beverage is a major player, focused upon like the cream in Inglourious Basterds or the screwdriver in Jackie Brown, or the five-dollar shake.  White cake means so much more to me now.

Django Unchained is a great, great film sometimes.  Then there are those moment in between the greatness which struggle.  Tarantino lulls me into a false sense of security, into a calmness of routine and monotony which is undercut by moments of extreme brilliance.  As soon as I feel myself getting tired or bored, something happens and the energy is picked back up.  I almost think that is his goal here, to suck us in then pull the rug out.  The performances here are not to be denied, as everyone top to bottom delivers.  But is the film, structurally, a sound bit of filmmaking?  Perhaps on a second glance things will come to light.  There is no denying Django Unchained is a good film, but give me some time and I will let you know if it's great or not.