The Final CKF Review of 2012: DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

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(THE SCENE: A saloon in the old west. L.L. SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA sidle up to the bar. The bartender is washing glasses and suddenly looks up at them and his eyes bug out of his head)

BARTENDER: You boys are from that Cinema Knife Fight gang, aintchoo? We don’t want no trouble ‘round here.

LS: And there won’t be any trouble, as long as you bring us a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.

(BARTENDER grabs a bottle and puts it in front of them, with two glasses)

MA: Wow, what fast service! Thank you, my good man!

BARTENDER: Sshh-sure (goes to the other end of the bar)

LS (pours whiskey): And here we are, doing our last Cinema Knife Fight review for 2012, and it’s probably the movie I’ve been looking to most all year, Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED.

MA (lifts his glass): Why don’t you tell the fine people in the audience what the movie is about.

LS:  Sure thing, pardner!

DJANGO UNCHAINED opens two years before the Civil War, and Django (Jamie Foxx) is one of a group of slaves being transported across some rough terrain, when along comes a traveling dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who rides a wagon with a big tooth on top. But Schultz stopped being a dentist five years earlier. Now, he’s a bounty hunter, and he is after the reward for three outlaws named the Brittle Brothers, but he doesn’t know what they look like. Instead, he’s tracked down one of the slaves from the plantation they were working at, Django. Schultz offers the man his freedom if he will help him identify and capture the Brittles.

Django would like nothing better than to hunt down the men who beat him and sold his wife and himself  to separate buyers (when they tried to escape from the plantation), so he readily agrees. When the men transporting the slaves (which include Django) protest, Schultz makes short work of them. Soon, the two men are making their way to small town in Texas, to discuss their partnership, and to kill the local Sheriff (you’ll find out why when you see the movie).

Schultz finds out that Django is desperate to get his wife back, so he makes him a deal. If they get the Brittle Brothers, Django will become a free man. But if he continues to work for Schultz, collecting rewards for outlaws who are wanted dead or alive (and they just about always bring them in dead) throughout the winter months, Schultz will help him track down his wife in the spring, and help him free her.

Their hunt for the Brittle Brothers take them to the plantation of a man called Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and Django relishes the chance to get revenge. This begins the partnership between Django and Schultz, which turns out to be quite profitable, since Django is a natural shooter and the fastest gun Schultz has ever seen.

Come spring, their journey takes them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic Southern Gentleman-type who treats his slaves viciously, especially the men he buys to participate in fights to the death for his amusement. Schultz pretends to want to buy one of his fighters in order to get close enough to confirm that Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is indeed on the plantation, and he and Django plan to get her out. Django pretends to be a “black slaver” who is there to be Schultz’s consultant, and everyone is astounded to see a black man who rides a horse and acts like an equal to the white men around him.

The odyssey Django undertakes to free his wife parallels the German legend of Sigfried and Brunhilda, where Sigfried traveled through hellfire and slew a dragon to free the woman he loved. What Django goes through is just about as dangerous, once Candie gets wind of what is really going on, thanks to the keen observation skills of his right hand man, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

DJANGO UNCHAINED is a violent, but highly stylized revenge drama set in the old South. And it continues Tarantino’s streak of making great movies, as far as I’m concerned.

MA:  I hated it.

(LS spits out his whiskey.)

MA (laughs):  Just kidding.  You just looked so happy talking about the movie, I couldn’t resist.

LS:  You scared me.

MA:  There’s a first time for everything.

LS:  A new Tarantino movie has become s0mething of a big event for me, and I was more than happy to check it out at the matinee on Christmas Day (when it was released). However, I was shocked to find the theater packed so early in the day. I thought most people would be home with their families, but the theater appeared to be sold out at the showing I saw. It was a good crowd, though, and it was nice to see that there are so many Tarantino fanatics.

MA:  I saw it this past Friday night, and the theater was packed then too, and it was a very enthusiastic lively audience.

(YOSEMITE SAM gets up from the table where he’s playing cards and approaches the bar)

YOSEMITE SAM: So you varmints think you’re tough, huh?

LS: Yup.

MA: Well, to be honest,  we never actually said that.

YOSEMITE SAM: The last hombre who spoke to me that way is now six feet under…

LS: Is that where Bugs Bunny lives these days?

YOSEMITE SAM: Why, you!

(MA pulls out his gun and fires at SAM’s feet, making him dance as LS claps his hands)

LS: Hey, this is fun!

MA: You tired yet?

YOSEMITE SAM (breathing hard): Damn you, Knife Fighters.

(MA stops shooting and YOSEMITE SAM topples over in exhaustion)

LS: Rats! I wanted to see more dancing.

Anyway, back to our review.

Nobody makes movies like Quentin Tarantino, and DJANGO UNCHAINED is just another in a long line of powerful epics. Not only is DJANGO the tale of a man yearning for freedom and the freedom of the woman he loves, and thus there is a love story at the heart of this film, but it’s also a chance for Tarantino to recreate American history in his own image. Because his movies are not so much set in certain point in time as they are events that unfurl in a world of Tarantino’s creation. In his world, things don’t happen exactly like they did in ours. For example, in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009), his last film, a rag-tag group of soldiers actually succeeded in assassinating Hitler.

Tarantino also has a sense of style that sets him apart from everyone else making movies today.

MA:  That’s certainly true.

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LS:  It’s a mixture of art (because there is an artistic eye to the way his movies are filmed) and pure grindhouse adrenaline. Even though DJANGO is over two and a half hours long, I never once felt bored, and it never dragged—in fact, I wanted even more. For once, every scene was necessary, and expanded upon what came before it, like the petals of a flower in bloom. There are several reasons why his movies are so satisfying. First off, there’s that artistic eye of his. Tarantino pays attention to detail and, in so doing, he fleshes out his world quite nicely, and makes it feel like a real place.

MA:  I would argue that it feels less like a real place and more like the world seen through an artist’s eyes, which doesn’t make it any less satisfying or believable.  Watching DJANGO with its rich imagery and fine attention to detail was like looking at an artist’s painting, only this artist is also a helluva writer.

LS:  Which brings me to my second point, his dialogue, which is second to none in modern cinema.

MA:  It’s great dialogue. I could listen to Dr. King Schultz all day.

LS:  There are also his soundtracks, which treat music as a character in the film, and he draws from everything from the music scores of other films (the opening song, “DJANGO” is from the 1966 spaghetti western of the same name, and it works just as well here), obscure pop songs, and music written just for his movies.

MA:  I agree.  The soundtrack is second to none.  My favorite part of the soundtrack is the variety he uses, the combination of pop songs—which amazingly don’t seem out of place here—with traditional film music.

LS: My favorite songs, aside from the title song, included ones by John Legend and Brother Dege. Hell, Tarantino even uses a Jim Croce song (someone I normally don’t like) to maximum effect in the middle of the film.  (And this is probably a good time to mention that the soundtrack album is pretty damn cool, too.)

And then there’s the casting. Tarantino’s movies always seem to have amazing casts, and DJANGO UNCHAINED is no exception. I wasn’t a big fan of Jamie Foxx before seeing this movie, but I consider myself a fan now. Foxx turns in a terrific performance here, full of anger, heart, and frustration with the world his character finds himself in.

MA:  Yeah, I’m not the biggest fan of Jamie Foxx either, but he is excellent here.  He really brings Django to life, and pretty much everything he does with this character in this movie is spot on.  He makes Django one bad-ass bounty hunter, yet he never sacrifices the sympathy we feel for him as he tries to rescue his wife.  It’s a very satisfying performance by Foxx, and I enjoyed him here much more than I did in RAY (2004) and DREAMGIRLS (2009).

LS: Alongside him is Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz. If you remember, Waltz won an Oscar for his role as a Nazi officer in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, and he’s just as mem0rable here. Waltz is fascinating to watch as the self-assured and morally righteous Schultz, and he and Foxx play off of each other really well.

MA:  Waltz is great.  Not quite as mesmerizing a performance as he pulled off in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, but it’s a much different role and is satisfying in a different way.  Dr. Schultz is a much more enjoyable character than the intense Nazi officer Waltz played in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

LS:  I’m not a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan, either, and I still don’t understand why so many directors want to use him so much (Martin Scorcese comes to mind), but he is brilliant here, playing against type as a sadistic villain.

MA:  Directors want to use him so much because he’s a terrific actor!  Admit it, he’s a great actor!

LS:  I’m not admitting anything!  But I will say that it may be the best performance I’ve ever seen DiCaprio give, and one scene where his Calvin Candie makes a point with an old skull and a hammer is especially intense.

MA:  Very intense.  That’s a testament to both DiCaprio’s acting skills and Tarantino’s direction.  I mentioned that I saw this movie with a very lively enthusiastic audience.  There was definitely a buzz in the theater before and during the movie, but during this scene, you could hear a pin drop.

(Sheriff QUICK DRAW MCGRAW and his deputy BABA-LOOEY enter the saloon and walk over to the bar)

QUICK DRAW: I hear you gents are disturbing the peace in my town.

BABA-LOOEY: Yeah!

LS: So what if we are?

MA: Actually, we’re trying to mind our own business and review a movie here.

QUICK DRAW: Why, you! How dare you speak back that way to a lawman!

BABA-LOOEY: Yeah!

LS: A law-horse you mean. Make him dance, Michael, I want to see the funny horse dance!

QUICK DRAW: I think you need to be taught some manners. (reaches for his gun)

(LS fires first, and a fountain of blood spurts out of QUICK DRAW, splashing all over BABA-LOOEY)

QUICK DRAW: I’m shot!

BABA-LOOEY: I’m getting out of here!

LS: Someone call the glue factory.

MA: Back to our review, after being so rudely interrupted.

While my favorite performance in the film belonged to Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz, I wouldn’t say he gave the best performance in the movie.  That honor goes to DiCaprio.

DiCaprio delivers a riveting, delicious performance as Calvin Candie.  He’s the perfect antagonist for Waltz’s and Foxx’s protagonists.  And as you mentioned, once you get to that scene with the hammer and skull, he’s one scary guy.  It’s the best DiCaprio performance I’ve seen since THE DEPARTED (2006) and BLOOD DIAMOND (2006).

LS:  Sam Jackson is just as villainous as Candie’s sidekick Stephen, a man who appears to be a fussy old “Uncle Tom” type, but who is, in reality, Candie’s confidante and pretty much his equal behind closed doors. And he’s just as vicious as his “master.”

MA:  It’s my favorite Jackson performance in years.  Stephen is one aggravating, vicious son of a bitch.

LS:  Kerry Washington is perhaps the heart of the film as Broomhilda, a slave who speaks German as well as English (which Schultz finds delightful and which they use in their plan). She’s undergone much brutality by the time Django finds her again – the first time we see her in a scene that isn’t a flashback, she’s being pulled naked out of a hotbox, where she’s being punished, and screams when a bucket of water is splashed on her—and you immediately want him to succeed in his plan to rescue her from the hell that is Calvin Candie’s plantation, called Candieland.

MA:  Yep.  Washington is great and does a terrific job evoking our sympathy throughout the film.

LS:  And those flashbacks are pretty potent. There are several times where Django’s mind wanders during their journey and he sees fleeting images of Broomhilda behind a tree, or bathing next to him in a stream, and you can feel Django’s yearning for her. His passion. And his remembrances of the abuse inflicted on him and “Hildi” (as she’s called) keeps him focused throughout to exact the vengeance he so rightly deserves.

The use of flashbacks in this movie is another plus. The cinematography in these scenes looks different from the rest of the movie—kind of dreamy—and evokes the way flashbacks were used in the best movies of the 1960 and early 70s (MIDNIGHT COWBOY comes to mind).  I loved that effect.

(DEPUTY DAWG enters the saloon)

DEPUTY DAWG: Dang it, you shot Sherriff McGraw!

LS: Yeah, what of it?

DEPUTY DAWG: Y’all think you can come into this town and shoot our sheriff in cold blood?

MA: He’s just a cartoon. So are you.

DEPUTY DAWG: Just a cartoon? Do we not cry if you hurt us? Do we not bleed if you shoot us?

(CLOSE-UP of DEPUTY DAWG’s face, as tears stream down his cheeks)

MA: If you put it that way, I feel kind of bad.

LS: Me, too.

DEPUTY DAWG: You two are so lucky that I wanted to be Sheriff of these parts, otherwise I’d take you in. But since QUICK DRAW’s dead, now I can take his job. Barkeep, drinks for everyone! Put it on my tab!

SALOON PATRONS: HURRAY!

BABA-LOOEY (hiding behind a barrel of beer): Looks like I better make like a banana and split (runs away).

DEPUTY DAWG: Let’s get back to your review. I want to see how this ends.

LS: What were we talking about? Oh yeah, the cast. The rest of the cast in DJANGO UNCHAINED is top-notch, and there are lots of really great actors in small roles here.

MA:  Which is always a lot of fun.

LS:  Just some of them include: Walton Goggins (from THE SHIELD and more recently the FX series JUSTIFIED) as a cowboy on Candie’s crew with a mean streak; Franco Nero (the Italian star of the 1966 DJANGO, you can identify him by his piercing blue eyes) as another slave owner who pits his man against Candie’s in a brutal fight scene that is going on when Schultz and Django first meet Candie. James Remar (Dexter’s father on DEXTER) as both one of the Speck brothers who are transporting the slaves in the beginning of the movie, and later as Candie’s hired gunman, Butch; Tom Savini as a man who handles Candie’s vicious dogs;  Bruce Dern in flashback as Django’s former slave owner; Jonah Hill in one of the movie’s more humorous scenes as a complaining Klansman – with Brad Dourif as another one of that gang;  M.C. Gainey (one of the more memorable “Others” from the TV series, LOST) as one of the Brittle Brothers; and Lee Horsley as a corrupt sheriff. The only actor here who seemed a little off was Tarantino himself, in a role as an Australian mercenary. But considering how great a job he’s done here as a director, it’s easy to give him that. (besides, rumor has it another actor backed out at the last minute, and Tarantino had to fill in for the scene, because it was the easiest solution).

MA:  It was fun seeing Bruce Dern, even for just the one scene.

And don’t forget Don Johnson in a memorable bit as Big Daddy, a southern plantation owner who serves as a sort of precursor to Calvin Candie.

LS: You’re right. Don Johnson is terrific in this movie as well. I loved him in every scene he’s in.

MA: I also enjoyed seeing Dennis Christopher as Candie’s lawyer, Leonide Moguy.

I’m not quite sure what Jonah Hill was doing in this movie.  He seemed a bit out of place, even if he did appear in the film’s funniest scene.

LS:  DJANGO UNCHAINED is gory. When bullets enter flesh, there is a fair amount of blood.

MA:  And it’s not of the CGI variety, which is a good thing.

LS:  During a big shootout towards the end, things get messy. But there’s a kind of visceral authenticity to it.

MA:  Yeah, but I thought things got a bit carried away at the end.  It seemed unnecessary, and didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the movie.  I could have done without the big concluding bloodbath.  I don’t have a problem with the fates of any of the principal characters, but to have an army of nameless gunmen riddled with bullets nonstop while spewing blood showers all over creation did nothing for me.

LS:  Between the top shelf acting, terrific script and dead-on direction, DJANGO UNCHAINED is easily one of the best movies I have seen in 2012. I just wish I didn’t have to wait all year long to see it. I give it four and a half knives.

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MA:  I liked it too, but not as much as you.  I agree that it has phenomenal acting, directing, and a top-notch script.  All three of these things are equally terrific.

One of my favorite parts of the script is that it runs the full gamut of emotions.  It’s  a love story, an actioner, a revenge tale, a statement on the evils of slavery, and the moods range from that incredibly tense scene near the end where Candie delivers his spiel with the skull and hammer to the funniest Ku Klux Klan scene in a movie this side of Mel Brooks.  It’s laugh out loud funny, and not of the nervous laughter variety.  It’s simply hilarious.

LS: It’s also a western—Tarantino’s take on the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, to be exact—as well as a homage to the black empowerment films of the 1970s. Two genres with their feet firmly planted in grindhouse cinema. Tarantino takes these elements and uses them to transcend his inspirations with something new and epic in scope. But the grindhouse elements here mean this movie is also entertaining as hell.

MA: There are lots of well-crafted scenes.  I thought the initial meeting scene between Dr. Schultz and Django, which comes right at the beginning of the movie, is one of the film’s best sequences.   It sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The “Mandingo” fight sequence is a particularly brutal scene, as is the scene where a slave is torn apart by dogs.  These scenes aren’t overly gory, but they’re tough to get through.  Tarantino does a nice job with reaction shots of his characters.  You don’t need to see what’s going on.  You can tell by looking into the pained eyes of Dr. Schultz, for example.

But the film’s not perfect.  While I would agree with you that the pacing is very good throughout, I did think it lost momentum towards the end.  The movie reaches an obvious climax when the plot to rescue Hildi comes to a head, but from there, as the story continues, I thought it lost a few steps.

It’s not that I didn’t like the ending to this movie.  I did.  It’s just that I thought the last twenty minutes or so didn’t have the same edge as the rest of the movie, and I didn’t find the final few events of the film as believable as all that had come before it.   And once it became obvious where the tale was headed, it didn’t have the same sense of unpredictability towards the end as it had during the beginning and middle.

LS: The only moment in the film that seemed to strain believability for me was the outcome of the deal between Candie and Schultz for the freedom of Hildi. It seems that Schultz could have resolved it much easier, and that his motives were almost forced to take the movie where Tarantino wanted it to go. I can’t fully complain, because what happens afterwards is so spectacular, but it just seems that Schultz was a little unnecessarily stubborn in that scene for the sake of the plot.

MA:  See, I didn’t find what happens afterwards all that spectacular.  To me, the film hit its peak during that scene where Candie and Schulz make their deal, and what followed, while good, was less intense.

It’s tough to keep up the kind of intensity found in DJANGO UNCHAINED for an entire movie, and I think, as this one made its way to the finish line, it slowed down somewhat.  I don’t mean the pacing slowed down, but the story did, if that makes any sense.

Still, I liked DJANGO UNCHAINED a lot, and it’s also one of my favorite movies of this year.  I give it three and a half knives.

LS: That’s all you’re giving it? What are you, insane?

MA:  I’ve only given a handful of movies more than a three knife rating this year, which puts DJANGO UNCHAINED in the upper echelon of movies I’ve seen this year, where it belongs.

Hey, bartender!  How about another round of whiskeys?

BARTENDER:  S-sure.  Then you folks’ll be leaving?

LS:  We’ll be leaving when we’re good and ready.

BARTENDER (pouring whiskey, nervously spilling some):  No hurry.  Take your time.  You’ll get no trouble from me.

LS (downs his drink):  I’m good.

MA:  And I’m ready.

LS:  Let’s blow this watering hole.

BARTENDER:  Please!  Don’t blow up my bar!

MA:  It’s just an expression.  Keep your shirt on.

BARTENDER:  Why would I take off my shirt?

MA:  You don’t get out much, do you?  Let’s get out of here.

LS:  So long folks!  We’ll see y’all next year with lots more movie reviews! So stay with your pals here at cinemaknifefight.com for 2013!

MA:  Adios, muchachos y muchachas!

BARTENDER (scratches his head):  You’re Mexican?

(CLOSE-UP of DEPUTY DAWG who’s asleep at the bar, snoring loudly)

—END—

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives DJANGO UNCHAINED ~ THREE AND A HALF knives (out of five)!

LL Soares gives DJANGO UNCHAINED  ~ FOUR AND A HALF knives!

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