Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has become easier to pigeonhole as time has gone by; he’s essentially a 21st-century hipster version of Mel Brooks. He also has a fondness for 1970s blaxploitation tropes, a remarkably tasteless approach to serious historical subject matter, and a penchant for gore that makes Sam Peckinpah look squeamish. Brooks went from one movie genre to another with his free-for-all spoofs, and so does Tarantino with his absurdist bloodbaths. He tackles the Western with Django Unchained, and, well, I much preferred Blazing Saddles. For starters, it was a lot shorter. (Django Unchained runs two hours and 46 minutes.) Jamie Foxx stars as the title character, a freed slave who is partners with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) in the late 1850s. The first half follows their adventures together hunting down criminals and collecting rewards. The second half is a convoluted melodrama in which the two conspire to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from her current owner, a Mississippi plantation master (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is an enthusiast of “mandingo” fighting, an ahistorical sport that has two male slaves fight until one beats the other to death. I suppose Tarantino is trying to portray the dehumanizing horrors of slavery with this and other depictions. Among other things, the viewer is treated to whippings, brandings, and a runaway slave being torn apart by dogs. However, Tarantino doesn’t use these for anything more than shock value, and the absurdist context--almost every scene has an oddball spin--makes their inclusion seem especially inappropriate. Tarantino isn’t in particularly good form outside of these moments, either. The dialogue is some of the flattest he’s ever written, and most of the scenes are poorly shaped and meandering. The action set pieces are so over-the-top in terms of violence that they quickly become tiresome; one sits there marking time until the blood explosions end. Christoph Waltz is one of the film’s few saving graces. He has exquisite comic timing, and he plays his character’s impeccable manners off the uncouth, even barbarous environment hilariously. The other actors are nowhere as interesting. Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington are stolid bores, while Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the plantation’s head house slave, take turns chowing down the scenery. It must be said, though, that their cartoonishness is of a piece with the rest of the film; Tarantino's sensibility is nothing if not immature. Robert Richardson provided the handsome cinematography.

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