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Friday, December 21, 2012
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/PopcornReel.com
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
-- 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
"Bamboozled", Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles", or this year's
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?
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
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
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