Yes, Quentin Tarantino is a film-making genius, but he is also a blatant exhibitionist and errant knight. His new film, Django Unchained (The Weinstein Company, domestically, Sony in the U.K.) opens on Christmas day -- same as Les Miserables -- but the two films could not be more different. Both are examples of a master director working at the height of his considerable talent, but as I recently wrote on the Huffington Post, I think Les Miz is the best film I have seen in many years. Which is not something I could say about Tarantino's epic and over-long exhibit. Yet Django (the 'd' is silent) is also probably the most interesting, controversial film to play at the Academy all year... and I am not forgetting The Master and the awful, confusing Cloud Atlas.
The R-rated Django Unchained engendered a large group of us standing in the lobby of the Academy on Sunday afternoon and arguing about its merits (or lack of them) long after the screening ended. My companion, Penny, and I were on the positive side of things, arguing that while it had its flaws, it was undeniably compelling, often amusing, sometimes frightening, heroic in its scope and intentions. My friend, Richard, shook his head in disgust and said that he felt it was too brutal, too long, lacking in both pace and story-telling sense. I guess that's show business.
Foxx and Waltz ride in the mountains.
As the producer of the first major studio film to star two black leads (For Love of Ivy, 1968, Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln), I was intrigued by Quentin's comment to the London Guardian that Poitier was his 'godfather' on this movie, telling him at a dinner "You must not be afraid of your movie." The question had seemingly arisen when the writer-director had briefly considered shooting the brutal slave scenes outside of the country to appease the concerns of the black cast members. In the end, reason prevailed.
Kerry Washington plays the female lead as Foxx' wife.
I will only briefly synopsize it: we open with a slave gang in the deep South in 1858, two years before the Civil War erupted. A German bounty hunter played brilliantly by Christopher Waltz, using his former profession as a traveling dentist with a wagon as cover, comes upon the slave gang. We learn he is seeking one of the slaves, Django, played by Jamie Foxx, who can identify the three brutal slave dealing Brittle brothers, murderers, whom Dr. Schultz is seeking to collect a reward "dead or alive." He frees Django from his enslavement and we learn that the slave's wife, Broomhilda (Quentin's spelling, played by Kerry Washington) has been sold separately... and, intriguingly, she speaks German. The good doctor teams up with Django with the promise that, if he will 'partner' with him for the winter in bounty hunting, they will go after his wife in the Spring and free her. He hones Django's killing skills all winter and in the Spring they go after Broomhilda, who is being held on the plantation called Candyland owned by the Francophile, brutal and oh-so charming slave master Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his best role in several years. It is is a vast spread where male slaves are trained to fight for sport, mandingo-style, and the females are used as house servants and worse. There is a 'house nigger' loyal to Candie played, astonishingly, by Samuel L, Jackson. The 'n' word is used over a 110 times in the film I am told, and after a while it becomes almost routine. ("We never seen a nigger riding a horse before.") We see scenes of enormous brutality (a slave being torn apart by rabid dogs) and we see a plantation owner bigot played by Don Johnson leading a crew of ragged Ku-Klux-Klansman-to-be on a ridiculous raid. The two hour 45 minute film ends in a blood-shedding frenzy before our Sigfried-like Wagnerian hero rides off with his Brunhilda. As Sonny Chiba said in Tarantino's spellbinding Kill Bill, Vol. 1, "Revenge is never a straight line."
Since I had (regrettably) been in business with the Weinsteins for a dozen years developing a remake of Bell, Book & Candle, (before they abandoned it and Miramax in a flurry of rancor), I had heard of the 'Southern' spaghetti Western which Quentin had been obsessively developing with them dealing in a genre manner with the horrible past of slavery.Inglorious Basterds came first, and introduced us to Waltz, who won a supporting Academy Award for his Nazi portrayal. In April of 2011 Quentin handed the Django script to the Weinsteins, saying that it was inspired by Sergio Corbucci's 1966 western, Django, which starred Franco Nero (who plays a cameo in the new picture). I remember seeing a film called Mandingo in 1975 that had the subject of slaves trained to fight other slaves, a gladiator story set in the deep South. Originally Will Smith was discussed for the lead role in this new film but Jamie Foxx eventually came aboard. (Will would have been brilliant in it, methinks.) I spent the night after seeing the movie reflecting on how I wanted more of the development of Django into a killing machine; it seemed rather truncated to me. I learned from Wikipedia that the picture was filmed starting in California in November of last year, then moved to Wyoming, and ended up on a plantation outside of New Orleans, Louisiana in March of this year. With a 130-day shooting schedule, it seems a miracle that the picture was ready for Christmas... but he does work fast, that he does.
A word must be given to the music score , which consists of original and existing musical tracks, some of it seemingly contributed by spaghetti Western source Ennio Morricone. Last Thursday Tarantino told a BAFTA audience in London that he found the research he did on the slavery subject "incredibly shocking" and that, violent as his film was, the reality was even worse. "It's no longer intellectual, no longer just historical record, you feel the brutality in your bones. It makes you angry and want to do something. I'm here to tell you that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse actually happened. I wanted to throw a rock through the history-under-glass aspect and shatter it for all times and take you into it." That you did, Quentin, that you did!
I think I can safely say that this ambitious, astonishing and unpredictable film is the best thing that Tarantino has done since Pulp Fiction (which, coincidentally I think, has been playing on HBO all week.) I found a quote from the Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, who summed it up: "It's as unwholesome, deplorable and delicious as a forbidden cigarette." Yes.
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