Thursday, January 17, 2013

Quentin Tarantino is a very frustrating director. His twenty year career began with Reservoir Dogs and he followed that up with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Django Unchained is his latest film and Tarantino is someone who always splits the cinemagoing audience into those people who 'get' him and those who don't. When I saw Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, I truly thought they were great films. But Kill Bill Parts One and Two were indulgent and messy and Inglourious Basterds was incoherent and childish. The director had lost his golden touch for dialogue and intriguing situations. So now we come to Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's 'Southern' about the freed slave of the title, played by Jamie Foxx, and his quest to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of her evil master. Django is assisted by his friend, bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz. The original Django films were spaghetti westerns with the title character a gunslinger played by Franco Nero. So the title and main character of Unchained is merely a nod by Tarantino to Nero's kitsch classics. The film opens very strongly: Django is freed from his yolk by Schultz, who agrees to make him his partner and also help him track down his missing wife. Waltz is very good as Schultz, a character who the audience has some empathy with, and Foxx acquits himself well. The pair discover that Broomhilda is being held by the malevolent master of a plantation, Calvin Candie, played with no little panache by Leonardo DiCaprio. So the pair create a pretext to see Candie in order to bargain with him for Django's wife's liberty. Tarantino's regular collaborator Samuel Jackson plays Candie's slave, Stephen, and his role feels a little light compared with many of his other onscreen personas.
The first half of the film works well structurally: Tarantino builds up a good rapport between Django and Schultz and he manages to keep it all rolling along nicely. It is really once they get to Candieland, the plantation, when the cracks start appearing. Tarantino can't help make his scenes far longer than they should be and we have long, lingering shots where to help its pace, he should cut to the chase. As I said, DiCaprio is very sinister and puts a great deal into his role but the last act of Django Unchained sees a return to the cartoon violence and lack of cohesion that has infected every Tarantino film since Jackie Brown. There is also a pathetic cameo from Tarantino at the end, which shows once again that he can't actually act but through his own ego, he has to shoehorn himself into his films, like a geek Hitchcock.
The problem is that Tarantino is at his heart a film geek and, while there is something to be applauded for his love of film, he still can't create a work which manages to transcend the feeling that he is merely a film fan making onscreen love letters to his favourite films. He also is so obsessed with creating cool-looking set pieces that the script and plot suffer as a result. The tone is very uneven here too and it's hard to empathise with or care about characters when they have as much depth when all is said and done as Tom and Jerry. Critics will continue to fall over themselves to praise his work and to slobber over Django Unchained because they are scared of seeming uncool if they don't and also because he did make some exceptional films early on in his career. But in the final analysis, Django Unchained is puerile, self-indulgent, lacking in coherence and far too long. There are some memorable performances but they can't save this film…

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