Django Unchained (***)

There’s been no film more divisive or more igniting in terms of strong Oscar speculation then Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  After months of shooting, word of a last minute edit (some believe editing is still going on currently), the film has finally hit cinematic eyes and the “final” product is both bold and misguided.  Django Unchained is big and full of Tarantino life and color that we’ve come to love about him.  On sheer production value, it’s his finest film endeavor to date.  Set designs are simply gorgeous, Robert Richardson captures some beautiful shots, and Sharen Davis proves once again, she’s one of the most awe-inspiring designers working today.  Tarantino does go a bit “out there” in his choices of dialogue along with the developing and rising structure of the story.  Where Tarantino succeeds is in digging some terrific performances out of his principal cast, even if his film is at times lunky, problematic, and a bit messy.

In the opening title sequence, Tarantino uses one of the best film theme songs this century and setting up “Django” for an audacious roller coaster ride.  The film tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) who with the help of his mentor Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) becomes a bounty hunter in the 1800s and sets out to save his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of an evil plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Anyone who knows my cinematic mind, knows my feelings about Jamie Foxx and his abilities as an actor.  For the most part of his career, I’ve found him immensely overrated, though excels quite well in comedic driven vehicles.  As the uneducated yet craftly-minded Django, Foxx does one of his finest works.  As satisfactory as Foxx is and given the nature in which the character is written, he gives Django a needed sensitivity that lacks in this grotesquely violent portrait. This isn’t to say Foxx doesn’t fault.  His interpretation of Django at the beginning of our tale, fresh off the slavery line and later becoming an A-list free bounty hunter is not entirely on point.  Not always being believable, at least in drama, is Foxx’s major flaw.  Where he’ll start by burying himself into a character, by the end of the three-hour finale, Foxx’s natural and Foxx-mannerisms reveal themselves in an awkward fashion.

When Christoph Waltz came into our lives as Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), many cinematic-lovers thought their lives would never be the same.  Waltz’s ticks, evil grin, and astounding portrayal went on to win, very deserving, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  As Dr. King Schultz, Waltz recaptures much of that magic and demonstrates once again, he is one of the most talented actors to grace our land in quite sometime.  What Waltz demonstrates so brilliantly is how he can both inhabit the soul of a man with no remorse or fear to take life yet have this potent and clear sensitivity for humanity. A divine interpretation.  Waltz is fearless, becoming a man with no obvious background, and building one of the finest portrayals by an actor this year.  Simply superb.

In a near-mute performance, Kerry Washington, and make no mistakeis absolutely magnetic and steals focus from every single actor in every single frame.  As Broomhilda Von Shaft, Washington delivers a performance reminiscent of Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath in Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), a turn Oscar recognized and is equal in talent and execution.  Besides the obvious beauty Washington naturally exhibits, her heartbreaking and bravura work stands at the top of anything she’s delivered in her respectable career.  Though the work is brief, and in many ways a background ornament that some might miss, without it, the film and the fable would feel simply meaningless. Washington is purely fantastic.

As the flamboyant and wicked Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio steps out of his usual comfort zone and is as charismatic as I’ve ever seen him.  When Calvin is on an even keel, telling a story, and simply on his lower register, DiCaprio excels.  It’s when the work hits the high notes, over-the-top anger or forced fuming yells, it can often feel stale in its execution.  One thing I’ve noticed is that Tarantino attempts to give DiCaprio, and the character Candie, instances of an “evil monologue,” where the audience can find the brutality of his motivation spelled out on the screen for all to see.  Tarantino attempted this in past films like Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) with David Carradine in the scene with the Bride and B.B. and the infamous story about the fishbowl.  In most Tarantino films, this tactic works.  In the newest effort, it doesn’t come off as a natural disposition and simply out of character.  The only conclusion I can come up with his either Tarantino doesn’t fully understand his characters and/or their motivations, although he did create them, or simply the editing and the timeline didn’t give him enough time to fully develop Django Unchained into the story he envisioned.  With all this said, DiCaprio is still memorable and should be worth the conversation of any awards body.

As the grumpy and vulgar Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson delivers his best work in years, reminding audiences that when teamed up with Quentin Tarantino, Jackson can stand next to any other actor working in the business.  One of Tarantino’s successes in the screenplay is the creation of Stephen, a head of house slave for Candie.  Jackson is the comedic backbone of the film and steals focus from many of its performers including DiCaprio and Waltz.  Also making a brief but memorable turn is the talented Don Johnson as Big Daddy Bennett, a slave owner that moonlights as something even more offensive.  Making a cameo, Jonah Hill makes his mark and makes it well.

When Tarantino takes the two arts of film and music and blends them together, he really excites the viewer.  John Legend’s “Who Did That to You?” is one of the more clever and amazing songs from a film this year.  Not only is Legend one of the talented musicians in the business, the placement of the song and lyrics fit like a glove.  If there’s one technical aspect to recognize from the film, Legend’s song is definitely the one.  And don’t get me started on the fascinating and brilliant theme that is “Django’s Theme” that plays over the opening title sequences; the theme will likely become the definitive cult classic song for any Tarantino fan for years to come.

Consequently, Django Unchained is full of wit, laughs, and two outstanding performances that are worthy of Oscar consideration.  The film is OVERLY long and while the charm is prominent in its opening scenes, the middle to end can be trying for a casual movie-goer.  It’s a valiant effort by Tarantino and should contend as one of the director’s best.  At least to his loyal legion of fans.

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