Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained: Once Upon A Time In The South…

When I was one of the lucky souls to read the lengthy, powerful script of Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, "Django Unchained", I came away from it with the query: "Why the **** this script wasn't produced earlier?" Maybe the notion of an African slave-cum-bounty hunter, pre-Civil War, was controversial. Alas, I waited, and I'm glad I did. Damn glad.

The year's 1858, and slavery's thriving in America like a virus. However, eccentric German dentist/manhunter King Schultz (delightful Oscar winner Christoph Waltz from Tarantino's previous work "Inglorious Basterds") decides to break the status quo by liberating African slave (grim but smooth Jamie Foxx of "Ray") during a transport. Django helps Schultz on pointing out a trio of wanted siblings and, in return, Schultz train Django in the manhunting trade while assisting in the liberation of his wife, the German-literate Broomhilda Von Shaft (cherub-like Kerry Washington, also of "Ray" and lead in the political TV drama, "Scandal") from the clutches of lecherous and decadent plantation owner Calvin Candie (ambitiously vile Leonardo DiCaprio of "The Departed" and "Titanic"). However, Candie's vet "house negro" Stephen (Tarantino chum and Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson in ogrish-like makeup) gets wise to the heroic duo's mandigo-purchasing scam and, like in any Tarantino opus, hell and a half breaks loose.

But unlike his previous seven, Mr. Tarantino, who appears here as an Australian miner, who meets a literally explosive demise, approaches the hot-potato topic of African enslavement in the antebellum Southern United States with remarkable honesty. Flogging, iron restrains, face clamps and the maiming of runaway slaves by dogs are present; lynching is only hinted. Sure, with his exploitative fanboy rep, Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction, "Kill Bill") would be the last filmmaker to approach the subject in a perfect world. However, it's not a perfect world, and those who have green eyes (cough Spike Lee cough) towards the madcap auteur should have struck the iron while it was hot. Tarantino got quick on the draw, orchestrating a porno film where Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" is the slut; the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah are the studs; the aura is by Sergio Leone and the script is by "Roots" author Alex Haley. At the end, Tarantino has out-done and out-foxed his cinematic ass with pride and a bag of dynamite (HINT! HINT!).

He's assisted by a brave cast. Oscar winner Foxx makes you forget his salad days on the sketch show "In Living Color" as the valiant, serious title hero as Oscar nominee DiCaprio finally buries his "cute-boy" rep as the debonair but volatile and misogynistic owner of "Candieland". Some have said Ms. Washington should have been given more to do, but she's sweetness incarnate; her appearance haunts Django before their reunion like a ghost. Waltz's Schultz is clever and sadly ironic; he's unaware that his descendants will take part in committing genocide in the following century as he's being noble. As for Mr. Jackson, his grotesque role, the polar opposite to his hit-man Jules in "Fiction", embodies the Orwellian idiom: "Freedom Is Slavery", to disgusting levels. It's hard to pick a favorite among the main quintet.

There's also stunt-casting, a Tarantino trademark: Bruce Dern ("Silent Running") and Don Johnson ("Miami Vice", "Nash Bridges") are nasty plantation owners; Tom Wopat ("The Dukes Of Hazzard") and Lee Horsley ("Matt Houston") are dutiful lawmen; Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away") is Candie's lawyer; James Remar ("The Warriors", "Dexter") has a dual role as a slave transporter and Candie's shotgun-toting bodyguard; Michael Parks ("Grindhouse", "Red State") is one of Tarantino's fellow miners and Walton Goggins ("Justified"), makeup wizard Tom Savini (the original "Friday The 13th") and Tarantino stunt gal Zoe Bell are among Candie's grungy henchmen. Jonah Hill ("Moneyball", "Superbad") has a fun bit as a dim-wit Klansman (is there any other kind?).

There's also Tarantino's respect to film's past: Spaghetti Western icon Franco Nero, star of the original Django film from 1966, shows up as Candie's fellow fan of mandigo fighting. The film's co-distributor, Columbia Pictures, resurrects one of their vintage "Torch Lady" stamps before the film plays the "Django's Song" composed by Luis Bacalov. Tarantino has more funky tunes from his catalog, including Richie Havens's "Freedom", which is used ironically in a devastating scene.

D.P. Robert Richardson captures the beauty and ugliness as pre-Civil War America with John Ford-like landscape shots and quick close-ups that come from a 70s kung-fu film. The late production designer J. Michael Riva make the antebellum South authentic (Was that statue of two mandigo fighters in combat made or found?!). There's been criticism of the film's running time (2 hours and 45 minutes) since Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke, passed away, but her substitute, Fred Raskin (the last three "Fast & Furious" films) understands that the tale's messy and compliments it.

Next to Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" (specifically the 215 minute cut), "Django Unchained" is a violent film that's socially and historically conscious (not historically accurate, mind you. It's not a somber epic!!!). Despite having two more films on his plate before voluntary retirement, Mr. Tarantino probably feels like Robert Redford at the end of "The Candidate". "Since this film's a masterstroke, what the hell am I going to do now?" he ponders. I could also imagine him secretly showing the film to the forty-fourth President of the United States...

No comments:

Post a Comment