Saturday, January 5, 2013

Django Unchained

What's Black and White and Red All Over?
Wasted Away Again in Tarantinoville

One walks into any Quentin Tarantino film warily.  It's going to be a "cheese-fest," for sure, it's just a matter of the quality of presentation—because it is always going to be about cheese.

And it's always going to be about movies, rather than the subject or genre it revolves around.

But, that's all you can count on; one never knows what to expect (which is a good thing).  One also knows that there will be moments, and even whole sequences of clownishness where he can't help going off the rails of a disciplined narrative to succumb to some cackling goonishness.  Tarantino is a bad little kid.  He's also a major league slugger...who likes to aim for the dug-out and, contrarily, hits home runs.  When he pulls off a whole movie, as he has in the past (particularly Inglourious Basterds), it can be a thrilling wallow—challenging and cathartic; he's got such good ideas that nobody has thought before, even while he plunders others' right and left.  It's just that he can't separate good ideas from bad ones, maybe because the originating Tarant-ego can't discriminate which, because they come from the same source.

Django Unchained is his latest polyglot of a film, the influences coming from everywhere, the soundtrack a dog's breakfast of styles and eras,* a mixture of high camp, dark humor, and revenge fantasy/wish-fulfillment set once upon a time in the era of slavery, that, even though it rigorously evokes the time and place in design (The South, "1858, two years before the Civil War"), must bow to Tarantino's superficial wishes to what's "cool" in his own head.  There are a couple of scenes that immediately made me think "this is great" (a long, protracted discussion in a bar and a street between Django (Jamie Foxx) and his mentor/patron Dr. King Schultz** (Christoph Waltz) on the similarities between slavers and bounty hunters ("Like slavery, it's a cash for flesh business....Still, I feel guilty about it"), a presentation by Schultz of the Siegfried myth (before a cliff-side proscenium arch that only contains Django as audience), and a bizarre proto-Klan gathering played for Pythonesque laughs.  The set up in the first half of the movie is fine, even intriguing (while the inspirations wheel through your head—not so much Sergio Leone, as The Skin Game, Blazing Saddles, Rosewood), then everything falls apart when, in an effort to rescue Django's wife Broomhilda von Shaft*** (Kerry Washington) we get to Candieland, the plantation owned by the eccentric Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where things seem to go on and on and on and on, the humor dries up, and things turn nasty.  The proclivity towards going overboard while not really advancing the story takes over and becomes paramount, with extended shoot-outs, emphasizing the thinnest of blood exploding out of wounds as if every blood vessel were an artery.  Django Unchained becomes repetitive and, frankly, dull, then a little prematurely self-congratulatory.  

A lot of the problem is that Tarantino has written such a good set-up, that he can't top himself with a finish, and falls back on the action that is neither inspired or clever.  And that is a low-down, dirty shame, especially when it comes to the characters he's spent a great deal of time creating and setting up.  They're inconsistent—ironic, as one of Schultz's major pieces of advice to Django is "during the act, you can never break character."  And yet Schultz ultimately does as does most everyone in the service of getting to the popping blood-bags.  Drama comes from character and most of the individuals in the film break character in ill-considered ways as a quick means to get out of a writerly jam.  The ultimate goal of the piece is foiled by blunt actions  from characters who had previously survived by guile.  That Django must use the same tactics—along with a fistful of dynamite (which, by the way, hadn't been invented yet)  shows an inconsistency in the most important player of the thing, and the star of the show, Quentin Tarantino.  Indulgence is one thing.  Lazy indulgence that trashes the previous good work is quite another.  

Look.  One should never take Tarantino too seriously.  If you do, you're missing a lot of the manic joy of his films for films' sake.  And reverence for such irreverence on his part is more than a little counter-intuitive and weirdly contrary.  But, it is disappointing that the director reached a certain point with this one, and just said "Aw, why work so hard?  Let's blow some shit up" leaving a path of destruction that includes dozens of bodies, and one pretty good idea for a movie, once upon a time.

Django Unchained is a Rental.  
Wilhelm alert @ 00:50:00

Jamie Foxx's Django wears a sun-screening cowboy hat AND shades.
Remember that line from Once Upon a Time in the West
about a man who wears both a belt and suspenders?

* This one is all over the map: start off with Luis Bacalov's song for the Sergio Corbucci western ("with the kind participation of Franco Nero") done in a cross-bred Elvisian/Frankie Laine style, a lot of Ennio Morricone (including a piece that Tarantino thinks is "original" but actually comes from Two Mules for Sister Sara), a piece of Jerry Goldsmith from Under Fire, Verdi's Requiem, and songs like Richie Havens' Freedom, and...most bizarrely, Jim Croce's cheery "I've Got a Name" which he guillotine-edits right before the phrase "And I'm gonna go there free."  Hmm.

** Just realized: "Dr. King."  Heh.

*** See what I mean about Blazing Saddles?  Remember Lili von Schtupp?

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