Tuesday, March 05, 2013

No clue if he named his son Dboba, but still ... "Django Unchained"

Yes, a "Star Wars" second trilogy reference. I should be ashamed, and am. A bit. Maybe more. Especially since this movie certainly seems like the second wind for everyone's favorite former video store clerk.

I admit I've been a bit sour on Quentin Tarantino for some time now. Sure, I still pop "Reservoir Dogs" into ye olde DVD player once a year, and I'll fight any man, woman or child who insists "Forrest Gump" was the rightful Best Picture winner over "Pulp Fiction." But we all know nothing QT has done since those two amazing works has lived up to the same standard.

Take a look. All are interesting, sure. But "Jackie Brown" was too long, and the "Kill Bill" movies were too indulgent -- and may not have a sole claim on that distinction, I know. The "Death Proof" part of "Grindhouse" was kind of boring and inferior to "Planet Terror," and I've come to the conclusion that "Inglorious Basterds" was mostly a mess, save Christoph Waltz. Put it all together, and I didn't have high hopes for "Django Unchained," especially with its 150+ minute running time.

Good thing I didn't stick to my guns, because this movie was highly entertaining, and easily one of Tarantino's best three movies. That it's the only one told in linear fashion is even more notable. Give it time, and "Django" might even supplant his landmark directing debut. Yes, it's that good.

You likely know the story. Jamie Foxx ("Stealth") is a slave who falls in with a German bounty hunter (Waltz) who needs Django to help him ID a few killers. The two team up for a while before hatching a plan to free Django's wife (Kerry Washington), another slave owned by classic plantation man Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Basketball Diaries") and intimidated by house slave and QT perennial Samuel L. Jackson ("Snakes on a Plane"). That's pretty much it, save for a few noisy scenes along the way.

Seeing as how this is Tarantino's show and we're clocking in some overtime, you know we're going to have a host of character actors and other fun casting -- to wit, Don Johnson as another plantation owner, Jonah Hill as his buddy, blink-and-miss Bruce Dern as Django's former owner, James Remar as Django's buyer, Dennis Christopher (yeah, "Breaking Away!") as Leo's lawyer, M.C. Gainey as one of Waltz's targets and the amazing collection of Don Stroud, Tom "Luke Duke" Wopat and Lee "Matt Houston" Horsley as lawmen. OK ... now let me catch my breath.

You also know that if it's Quentin, then there's killin'. A lot. But seeing as how this is a spaghetti western crossed with a blaxplotation revenge movie, I'd be stunned if there wasn't a casualty every few minutes. If there was anything surprising about this, it was that the violence didn't seem all that gratuitous for most of the movie, but rather in keeping with the brutality of the time. Or maybe I'm just desensitized after all these years. Either way, rest assured that by the end the blood quotient is in keeping with other Tarantino turns.

But you know what? For all those supporting players and for all the red stuff, you can make a case for this being Tarantino's first successful "actors movie." Hear me out. "Pulp Fiction" had great performances but is more a product of the structure and dialogue. "Jackie Brown" had a solid cast but just wandered too much. But here we have two Oscar winners and a three-time nominee, and each of them is really good. Really good. Not sure how you can discount the direction and script in those cases.

Hard to say who was the best. Foxx and Waltz share screen time, so not really fair to make the former a Best Actor and the latter Supporting. It's clearly a buddy situation, with each wrestling with his emotions at difficult points in our story. Foxx evolves from slave to bounty hunter to conspirator well, while Waltz maintains a steady demeanor and good humor throughout (almost).

That said, DiCaprio is dazzling, and that's fitting since his casting was what kept "Django" on my radar screen even as I worried about another Tarantino mess. We're well into the movie before we meet Leo's character, but once he arrives he commands the screen -- and not only with audaciousness and volume. Again, credit to Tarantino's writing, but just about any other actor would have turned this owner of fighting slaves into a true cartoon instead of a person teetering on the brink. I know the Best Supporting Actor nominations were seriously stacked this year -- each guy already had an Oscar -- but it's shame DiCaprio didn't make that list.

In all, a fantastic piece of work, and a nice surprise nearly 20 years after his seminal work with Travolta, SLJ, Uma and Bruce. Quentin, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.


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