Friday, January 4, 2013

Tarantino Does Slavery

I've taken a healthy break from writing in the old blog this past week because, frankly I've just enjoyed having no obligations.  As I sit here on the sofa, enjoying the last work day off for winter break (yes I still have Saturday and Sunday off before I go to work...but those don't count) I have to contemplate this year's vacation.  Was it as good as I hoped?  Well, yes and no.  Christmas and New Year's were great, but these last few days of break have been poisoned with boredom and illness.  I suppose it is my own fault, as I didn't make any concrete plans for post-Holiday fun...largely because I knew I'd have a glut of films to watch before school started again leaving me with no time at all to enjoy them.  And no one could have suspected that I would have an ulcer flare up in the middle of this week, thus limiting my movements even more.  However, there is still some time left until work resumes and I plan to enjoy it (currently I have 6 films left to get through....2 Bonds and 4 Hitchcocks).  Speaking of enjoyment, I watched another late-year blockbuster a week ago and I feel as though I should review it from that standpoint...one of enjoyment.  I should note that the director, Quentin Tarantino, doesn't normally appeal to me.  I have seen all of his films, save for three (Inglorious Bastards and Kill Bill 1 and 2), and can safely say that up to now I had only enjoyed two of them, Death Proof and Reservoir Dogs.  However, the trailer for this latest effort really looked appealing to me so I made it a point to see it upon release.  Would it impress me or would I find it bloated and uniteresting (like I had felt about the others)?  Let's find out as we explore Django Unchained.

At the start of the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), are sold at a slave auction. While Broomhilda is sold to an unknown buyer, Django is bought by the Speck brothers (James Russo and James Remar). When Django and a number of slaves are being transported across the country, the Brothers are confronted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter who uses his former profession as a dentist as a cover. Schultz frees Django and kills one of the Speck brothers, leaving the other trapped. He reveals that he sought out Django because Django can identify the Brittle brothers (Doc Duhame, M.C. Gainey, and Bruce Dern), a band of ruthless killers with a price on their heads. Although Schultz confesses that his bounty hunting profession is opportunistic, he also emphasizes to Django that he "despises slavery". Schultz and Django come to an agreement: in exchange for helping locate the Brittle brothers, Schultz will free Django from slavery and help him rescue Broomhilda from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a plantation owner who is as charming as he is brutal. On his plantation, Candyland, male slaves are trained to fight to the death for sport, while female slaves are forced into prostitution. Django agrees, and the two go after Candie and the Brittle gang. Django is initially uneasy about his newfound role, but soon proves himself to be talented. After collecting a number of bounties, Schultz and Django confirm that Calvin Candie is Broomhilda's current owner. After scoring an invitation to Candyland, they devise a plan where the two of them pose as potential purchasers of one of Candie's slave fighters to reach Broomhilda. Upon their arrival, Schultz introduces Django as his equal, which causes hostility at Candyland, where racism is extreme. The plan goes awry when Candie's head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), realizes that Schultz and Django are more interested in Broomhilda than purchasing a fighter. Now begins a game of cat and mouse to discover if the boys will get away with their plan or if Candie will have the last laugh.

Django Unchained is the kind of excessive, gory fun that I expected from other Tarantino projects and was left wanting.  At it's core there is a decent story and a fair examination of slavery practices that we might not be aware of, and all wrapped inside of a mock-exploitation tale that makes the heavy subject easier to swallow.  Like Mary Poppins sang, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and Tarantino clearly knows this tactic in his storytelling.  All of his films have a message and a deeper meaning wrapped inside them that is made more palatable by giving it a candy coating of excessive violence and fun dialogue.  I think that is why (my personal opinion aside) his films have remained critical and audience favorites for years, because they combine a filmlover's two favorite things...poignient cinema and excessive spectacle.  Django, I am pleased to say, has made it's way into my 'liked' group of Tarantino movies, bringing the total to 3.  It is the perfect mixture of what he does with every movie, a grand concept with a deep message made easily accessible thanks to a violence level racheted up to 100%.  In many ways, Django is a near-perfect entertainment with memorable characters (my favorites being Candie, Stephen, and Dr. Schultz) and a captivating setting.  Instead of modern day gangsters, Samurai trappings, or World War II shades, Tarantino has now taken on the Old South before the Civil War.  This is a setting ripe for exploitation from Tarantino's usual grime and penchant for violence.  This time, however, the film takes more of a stance against violence than for.  Unlike other protagonists in his filmography, Django actually resists violence and killing to start...he even attempts to not kill a bounty because the man's child is present, but he learns that violence against the violent is acceptable when it is the only thing that can make a difference.  This is strikingly different in comparison to other characters he has written who take to violence like a duck to water.  It is also worth noting how Tarantino explores the hierarchy of slaves (house slaves vs. field slaves) and how some slaves, like Stephen, were the trusted confidantes of their masters.  Stephen, indeed, ends up being much more evil than any of his white masters because of his willing betrayal of those who share his race.  Will you enjoy Django Unchained if you haven't enjoyed other Tarantino works?  Maybe, but you may notice more of it's flaws than people who love him.  For example, the film is about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be largely due to Tarantino's choices in the finale.  On one hand, I love the final finale...but I don't like the writing choices that lead us to it.  I won't ruin it if you haven't seen it, but let's just say that at least one character takes a huge choice leap that doesn't jive with what we know about him from earlier.  It's not a deal-breaker, but it does make me like the film just a little bit less than I could have.  Still, it is an excellent film and one worth seeing this Holiday season.