Thursday, March 7, 2013

Arantino Explained (The T is Invisible)

The Film in Which Tarantino Blows Tarantino to Smithereens

     Like most American college students in the early to mid nineties, I found Quentin Tarantino to be the herald of a new age of American cinema when I first discovered Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Twenty years later, the Geek Guru of Film may STILL be trying to top those early triumphs, but even his weakest efforts show more creativity and cleverness than ninety percent of what's available at the box office.
     Django Unchained, however, is far from Tarantino's weakest effort.  It is a film with flaws, but many great moments as well.  I would rank it somewhere in the middle of the pack...not quite as strong as Inglorious Basterds, but still a bit ahead of the Kill Bill series (all of which I love, by the way).  It is also pure Tarantino: abrasive, irreverent, challenging and completely self aware of its more sophomoric tendencies.
     Which brings us, I suppose, to the obligatory accusations of racism thrown around when a white boy makes a film about slavery in which the "n-word" is tossed around casually and often.  Personally, I think that being offended by one of this man's movies is a lot like being offended by South Park:  you make yourself look far more ridiculous by your reaction than the movie was capable of making you look.  Quentin is an equal opportunity offender and lover of all mankind, which should be obvious to anyone who actually pays attention to his films.  The use of the "n-word" is not only historically accurate, but absolutely necessary to capture the thematic tone of ignorance and disregard for human rights that is central to the piece.  As for the institution of slavery itself, I don't think any film has ever presented it in all its disgusting barbarism in quite the stomach turning manner of Django.
     As I mentioned before, the film does have a couple of flaws, so let's get those out of the way first.  I regret to say that while Django the character is written brilliantly as a sort of Blaxploitation cowboy super-hero, Jamie Foxx's interpretation of said character falls a little bit short.  It's not a bad performance, and he does have some wonderful moments, but in its totality his performance lacks something of the bigger-than-life-yet-utterly-believable quality that his three primary co-stars deliver in spades.  Foxx has proven himself adept at both comedy and drama, but doesn't quite seem to catch the groove of the weird hybrid flavor essential to this material.
     I would also say that while Mr. Tarantino drew four wonderful, memorable characters at the center of this yarn, some of the peripheral talents were underutilized.  I was quite excited to hear about Kerry Washington's involvement in this project.  She is a highly talented young actress, the only junior member of the cast of For Coloured Girls to hold her own when playing against her veteran cast mates.  I had hoped that participation in this film would expose her ability to a wider audience, but she is given so little to do or say that I am afraid her role will quickly be forgotten.  Walton Goggins, similarly, seems to be placed in the picture merely to look googly-eyed in the background.  While there is no actor better suited to this task, the man has MUCH more to offer.
     The only other real fault I found with Django is an uneven quality in the plot structure by which the climax pales in comparison to the bigger, wilder battle scene that proceeds it.  The fault, however, may not lie in the script at all, but in Mr. Foxx's unwillingness to quite take his character all the way over the top with feeling.  The character herd has thinned somewhat by the final scene, and working alone the actor seems unprepared to upstage what the ensemble as a whole was able to pull off.
     In Mr. Foxx's defense, it IS a pretty amazing ensemble to try and upstage.  The clear stand-outs, however are Leonardo DiCaprio and (ESPECIALLY) Samuel L. Jackson.  I have always held that Mr. DiCaprio is a far more talented character actor than leading man, and his first turn in a truly villainous capacity has gone a long way toward proving me right.  It was refreshing to see the familiar actor truly doing something NEW, impressing me in a way that I don't know he quite has since Gilbert Grape, certainly not since The Aviator.  His acting has usually been at its best when there was a darkness to the characters he was playing (The Aviator, Shutter Island, Inception) and diving into the deep end of that ocean has produced one of his best turns yet.
     Samuel L. Jackson is one of those great actors who could never quite transcend the enormity of his own personality.  I have always asserted that all of his characters, while entertaining, employ very similar vocal inflection patterns, postures, and modes of physical expression. In other words, Sam L always played some variation of Sam L.  I will say this no more. In Django, he completely disappears into the character of Steven.  His customary mannerisms just weren't there.
     However, it is the interaction between these two characters that creates much of the sheer joy of viewing this picture.  Their relationship is perhaps that most complicated between any of the major characters.  The scene where they conspire in the study, away from prying eyes and ears, is absolutely outstanding and tells you so much about the characters in such a short burst of time.
     All this doting on his two snubbed compatriots should do nothing to minimize the contribution of Chritoph Waltz and the performance that recently nabbed him his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Waltz actually plays the outsider in this world and it is through his eyes that we see the true horror inherent in it.  He is charming and bigger than life but still completely accessible.
     Long as this review is becoming, I would remiss not to take a minute to praise the excellent work of Django's production team.  Fred Raskin faced a daunting task stepping into the shoes of Tarantino's longtime editor Sally Menke, (who recently passed away) and performed his duties admirably.  Cinematographer Robert Richardson was fully deserving of his Oscar nomination providing some of his finest camerawork to date.  It is also easy to see why many considered costumer Sharen Davis's lack of a nomination a snub.  Foxx and DiCaprio in particular had some A-mazing outfits.  Django also makes fantastic use of music with one of the best and most diverse soundtracks of the year.
     On a final note, Inglorious Basterds and this film seem to be inviting a third revenge fantasy focused on righting the wrongs of history to finish the trilogy.  What's next, Quentin?  The remnants of the native South American tribes invade the Vatican to steal their gold?  A mysterious plague affecting only Republicans strikes the country and a team of gay doctors refuse treatment?  Let your mind run wild, Mr. Tarantino, it's what we count on you for.

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