Well, I finally saw Django Unchained, and where to begin? I avoided it for quite some time because it seemed most everyone had already seen it, and a Tarantino film is not a thing I like to embark on alone. For one, I’d heard about the over-the-top violence, which seemed like a thing best taken in with a friend or loved one; also, Tarantino films tend to prompt a good debate — I fondly remember a two-hour post-Kill Bill Vol. 2 discussion at a Brazilian restaurant with two compadres.
Django Unchained is no different. In fact, it’s hardly a departure for Tarantino, but rather nestled right at home between the nods toward blaxploitation of early works like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, the genre mish-mash of the Kill Bill movies, and the revisionist history of Ingloruious Basterds. It’s maybe the most Tarantino movie of them all.
In many ways, Django Unchained is brilliant. Tarantino’s use of anachronistic music feels more pointed; there’s a thesis here. I never really bought into Inglourious Basterds as a revenge fantasy, but rather as a gimmick; after all, what connection does Tarantino really have to Jewish culture? But now he’s taken on something that, I feel, is closer to his heart, for African-American characters have been prominent in nearly all of his movies. Unlike Basterds (which, I’ll admit, I need to watch again, having only seen it once), Django Unchained makes a clear, concise statement. (Which is not to say that the movie itself is so concise.)
Jamie Foxx stars as Django, who plays second fiddle to Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz for the majority of the movie. Django is a slave who gets his freedom, but not really. Tarantino isn’t interested in exploring slaves as they actually were, but rather slaves as archetypes (that’s where Samuel L. Jackson comes in as the Uncle Tom-like Stephen). So Django never behaves like a freed slave really would, but rather, as a pissed-off modern man sent back in time to exact his revenge. And that’s fine. At no point in this or any other Tarantino movie do we ever feel absorbed enough in this world to forget that we’re watching a Tarantino movie.
There is something quite pleasurable about seeing him dressed up atop a horse while hip hop plays on the soundtrack, though; it’s a striking reminder of where American hip hip originated, as if history has just collapsed in on itself like an accordion, excising 150 years in the process. It took a long time to get us here, but in this moment, Tarantino shows us exactly where today’s black culture came from. There’s not much difference between Django, with his flashy clothes, his pride, and his fancy ride (a horse) and, say, Kanye West. That’s a bold statement, maybe as bold a statement as Tarantino has ever made.
Like most Tarantino films, Django Unchained is comprised of pleasurable detour scenes, each with their own ebb and flow. A showdown with a sheriff outside an Old West Bar; a gathering of a comedic Ku Klux Klan, debating over the eye-holes in their hoods; the unusual notion of a German-speaking slave named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, playing Django’s honey). In its more charming moments, Django Unchained is truly sublime, thanks mostly to Waltz and a perfectly delightful Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie. (He’s basically taking on the Waltz Basterds role as a villain who is both despicable and genial.) To balance it out, there are a few moments of striking brutality to remind us that this is, in fact, the pre-Civil War American South, and slavery is a heinous business. That means a bloody mandingo fight and another scene in which a slave is ripped apart by dogs. These aren’t moments of “fun” Tarantino violence; it’s real violence.
But here’s where I think Tarantino slips when it comes to making a true masterpiece — he does go for over-the-top Tarantino violence in a couple of climactic sequences, and the tone just doesn’t quite mesh right with what’s come before. Sure, you go into a Tarantino film expecting a certain amount of excess; woe is anyone who wants to take him too seriously. But is it wrong to wish that, this time, he’d shown the smallest modicum of restraint? Django Unchained‘s more cartoonishly violent scenes leave something to be desired — they’re not particularly well-staged, nor are they very suspenseful — and, oddly, both take place in the same location (a rather unimaginative choice). I’m sure Tarantino has his movie geek reasons for why these scenes “need” to be as ultraviolent as they were, but there are many ways in which Django Unchained hints that he might have matured as a filmmaker… until Django’s crazy, bloody showdown with a lot of nameless, faceless white dudes we know nothing about, except that they’re the “bad guys.” It’s fairly juvenile.
On the one hand, Django Unchained is brilliant, making a searing statement about racial politics in America. It rubs our faces in some of our ugliest history, daring us to flinch. It imagines a revenge scenario most moviegoers are probably too suppressed to even know they wanted, until Tarantino delivered on a cinematic silver platter. And we have to ask questions about whether or not we like this, and why or why not.
And on the other hand, it’s just another Tarantino movie, not all that different from the ones before. It’s a curious blend of spaghetti Western and fairy tale, where the “white knight” is actually a black slave come to rescue his “princess.” In the end, that’s effective, but I can’t help but feel like Tarantino didn’t trust his fans enough to truly surprise us, to deliver more (or perhaps less, in this case) than we knew we’d be getting. Must every film Tarantino makes be a “Tarantino Movie”? Will he ever not give in to his basest desires? Here, the story works so well on its own — the characters, the tension, the comedy, the story — that it almost feels like Tarantino’s a (ahem) slave to expectations. Here, when it comes to the most sensational over-the-top bloody bits, it feels like he’s phoning it in. For my money, Django Unchained would have been a better movie at half the body count.
I’m not displeased to see it as a Best Picture contender, though — it’s not far from my own personal Top 10 of the year. It is, of course, nowhere near a front-runner to win — there are at least five other movies with much better chances at the big prize. The other nominee I’m rather belated in discussing is Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, which I saw nearly two months ago but didn’t feel any urgency to speak on. At that time, I didn’t think it’d have much awards steam, but the movie has been pretty stalwart; Ang Lee even took one of the five coveted Best Director slots that excluded Ben Affleck, Tom Hooper, and Kathryn Bigelow from that race despite the fact that their films (at one point, at least) had better shots at Best Picture.
I still have almost nothing to say about Life Of Pi. It’s pretty, I guess — if you don’t mind everything being really fake-looking. I can see how some might be enchanted by the visuals; I, however, was not.
I also did not enjoy the framing device, with an adult Pi telling a novelist about his adventures of survival aboard a lifeboat, with only a hungry tiger named Richard Parker as company. The tiger is impressively animated, but I never grew to care for him as a character as Pi eventually does (and the audience is meant to); the film straddles a strange line between reality and fantasy, which had me neither believing in it at face value nor transported to another world. It’s never clear how seriously we’re supposed to take this. Nor did I go along with the “twist” (taken from the novel), a variation on “It was all a dream!” It stems from an interesting idea, but amidst all this CGI imagery with the emotional weight of a watercolor, it just seemed like the wrong place for such a heavy-handed message. Especially the tactless way it’s delivered. Give me the facts or give me the fiction, but don’t change your mind at the last minute and exchange one for the other.
It is pretty, though.
There’s an important distinction between this film and one or two others with better chances in the big race. I don’t want to pick on Life Of Pi, a well-crafted and well-intentioned film; I don’t begrudge it its Oscar nomination or massive box office success. (I feel similarly about Beasts Of The Southern Wild this year… I can see what some admire even if I didn’t exactly swoon for it myself.) Suraj Sharma’s performance as Pi is terrific; he expertly carries the movie, and I hope to see more of him soon. But this one missed the mark for me, though it seemed to fully enchant many critics. I even took the trouble of seeing it in 3D, which likely further removed me from an investment in the story; I can’t help but see a 3D movie as more of a theme park experience than an emotional one. Sorry, future. But that’s just me.
It’s just not the kind of year where a slighter, fluffier movie is going to win. (Slumdog Millionaire is likely this one’s closest Oscar-winning cousin.) Like Django Unchained, Life Of Pi is an also-ran in the Best Picture category. It’s well-liked enough that Ang Lee has at least a fighting chance at Best Director for his technical mastery; he’s respected in the industry, and even though he won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, the movie’s Best Picture loss to Crash may carry over a few sympathy votes anyhow. Likely, though, Life Of Pi‘s rewards will come in the technical categories, where it may very well sweep. It’s maybe a shame to weigh this largely computer-generated creation against, say, the cinematography of Skyfall, but that’s the nature of the Oscars beast.And then there’s Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ “return” to live action. I avoided it in theaters based on mixed word-of-mouth and reviews. My expectations were sufficiently lowered so that I quite enjoyed it when I caught it on DVD. The movie’s advertisements downplayed the extent to which it is about addiction, playing up the courtroom drama of it all and making Whip Whitaker seem like a much more heroic figure than he comes off in the movie. The actual character is a broken man, in denial about his alcohol abuse, running on auto-pilot (excuse the metaphor). It’s terrifying to think that people we trust — like pilots, and police, and doctors and nurses — can be so dependent on substances, and just functional enough that it goes by undetected. But that’s the world we live in. It can be anyone. Whip is barely hanging on, and yet there’s no one to stop him. No one to say no. The people in his life quietly allow him to abuse and carry on, because how can they stop him? How do you stop a grown man from doing what he wants to do… even if you suspect that someone, or in this case many people, could get hurt?
Flight is a solid movie, if not a great one. It’s nice to see Zemeckis tackle such adult material — full frontal nudity! cocaine! heroin! — and that sequence leading up to the plane crash is pretty spectacular. In a year of very strong male performances, Denzel Washington’s is a little too big and broad for me to include him as one of my Top 5 (or 7, or even 10, possibly), but he is good. And it’s nice to see a relatively big movie that doesn’t shy away from a difficult lead character or somewhat touchy subject matter. Flight could have been an independent movie if not for the big-budget plane crash sequence, and that’s not something you can say about many studio movies these days.