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Movie Review: “Django Unchained”

By Van Thomas Roberts
Quentin Tarantino’s antebellum western “Django Unchained” (** OUT OF ****) is far more palatable than his appalling World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds.” Nevertheless, Tarantino adopts a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward ‘the peculiar institution,’ while he sets a new record for the number of times the politically incorrect N-word is used. The saving grace of “Django Unchained” is nobody behaves as clownishly as Brad Pitt did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Meaning, aside from its gratuitously-violent, revenge-fueled narrative, “Django Unchained” qualifies as a fair to middling horse opera that pays greater tribute to Fred Williamson’s Blaxploitation westerns than Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti westerns. Tarantino depicts southern plantation owners contemptuously as sadistic stooges along with anybody who conspires with them–whatever their pigmentation. Few surprises occur during its marathon 165-minutes. The absence of Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who died in 2010 from heat stroke, may account for this meandering melodrama. The first hour should have been seriously trimmed, but it provides you with adequate opportunities to contend with super-sized soda drinks. Sadly, “Django Unchained” generates little excitement until Leonardo DiCaprio enlivens things with his presence. He makes his character’s obsession with phrenology appear frightening genuine. You know that he is a villain because he smokes too much. Tarantino stages one long, blood-splattered shoot-out that looks like a homage to “Saving Private Ryan.” This kind of exaggerated violence will make the squeamish cower. Conversely, gore hounds will admire the abundant use of exploding computer-generated body parts.

A German dentist who masquerades as a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), purchases a woebegone slave, Django (Jamie Fox of “Miami Vice”), from a pair of shotgun-wielding slave traders. Schultz kills one slaver, shoots the other slaver’s horse so the fallen animal traps its’ rider, and then releases the other slaves so they have their way with the pinned slaver. Schultz has been searching for Django. It seems Schultz wants to collect the bounty on the Brittle Brothers. Trouble is Schultz has never laid eyes on the Brittles so he wouldn’t recognize the three of them if he saw them. He buys Django so the African-American can spot them for him. After they track the Brittles down to Big Daddy’s plantation and kill them, Schultz makes Django his partner. They arouse comments wherever they go because Django rides a horse. Whites weren’t accustomed to seeing a black man astride a horse. Meantime, Django perfects his speed and accuracy with a six-gun until he can draw, fire, and hit the bull’s eye it in one fluid motion. He tells Schultz about his slave wife and resolves to be reunited with her. Schultz traces Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to a plantation called Candieland. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio of “Titanic”) owns Candieland and enjoys gambling on his African American Mandingo wrestlers. Schultz and Django pose as buyers searching for a good Mandingo fighter to buy. They are willing to pay $12-thousand for one of Candie’s fighters. Candie invites them to his plantation. Along the way, our heroes watch Candie punish one of his runaway slaves. He turns several dogs loose on the unfortunate slave and the dogs tear him apart. Afterward, everything goes as planned for our heroes until Candie’s oldest servant, head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”), suspects the two aren’t interested in slave fighters as much as they are in Broomhilda. At that point, all Hades breaks loose with shooting and killing galore.

Little of this so-called tribute to Spaghetti westerns resembles a Spaghetti western. Indeed, Tarantino didn’t lens the action in either Spain or Italy, and only rarely does the scenery look as spectacular as the scenery in a European western. Basically, three things qualify this as a Spaghetti western tribute film. First, original “Django” star Franco Nero makes a cameo in the second hour where he assures our African-American hero that he knows the D in Django is silent. Second, Tarantino appropriates music from several Spaghetti westerns, not only “Django,” but also “Day of Anger” and “They Call Me Trinity.” Purists will also recognize music from the Clint Eastwood western “Two Mules from Sister Sara” and the Rock Hudson World War II movie “Hornets Nest.” Third, Tarantino tries to imitate the popular zooms that were rampant during the 1970s. Incidentally, the zooms in “Django Unchained” barely resemble those zooms from long shots to close-ups so prevalent in Continental westerns and crime thrillers. Comparatively, few Spaghetti westerns were as gory as “Django Unchained.” The big plantation shoot-out looks like something derived from Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Instead, “Django Unchained” looks more like a Blaxploitation western along the lines of the 1972 Fred Williamson western “The Legend of N***er Charley.”

The cast for the most part acquit themselves admirably. Not surprisingly, Tarantino hasn’t learned yet that his talents remain behind the camera rather than in front of it. Cast as an African-American slave turned bounty hunter, Jamie Fox maintains a straight face throughout the action, and Christopher Waltz oozes ingratiating charm as the older hero who teaches the younger hero how to be heroic. This is a standard-issue plotline in westerns. On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio virtually chews the scenery as plantation owner Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson lands the juiciest role as a suspicious Uncle Tom house slave who has Calvin’s ear.Tarantino’s dialogue seemed on the weak side, too. Nothing here struck me as remotely quotable. This time around Tarantino employs lots of familiar faces, but few are featured in primary roles. If you look closely, you’ll recognize Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Michael Parks, Robert Carradine, and Lee Horsley in minor supporting roles. “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson and “Breaking Away” lead Dennis Christopher get more screen time than their colleagues from yesteryear. The only really funny scene involves Big Daddy’s vigilantes as they struggle to see through their crudely cut-out white bags that they wear over their heads. Altogether, considering the wealth of material Tarantino appropriated, “Django Unchained” amounts to a missed opportunity.

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12 comments

  1. Sha

    We saw Django and I must say that even though I am a white female raised in the south, and was raised hearing the derogatory slur against my brown sisters and brothers, I LOVED this movie! It is the BEST Quentin movie EVER made, hands down! It is comical and era-specific and true to character in every way. Bravo to Jamie, Christoph, Kerry, Samuel, and my fav, Leo, for telling a true-to-life story! Quentin should win an Oscar as well as all the aforementioned stars! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

  2. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    Jimmy Stewart must be rolling in his grave at the release of Tarantino’s Christmas Special. Even Spike Lee claims he will sit this one out:”I won’t see it, “he says.

    What’s with Tarantino’s Old Testament revenge fantasies? I suspect it’s his glorification of Zionist Israel and his professed love of Jewish “culture,” where carrying out bloody massacres of indigenous Palestinians is every day at the office.
    Tarantino promises that the revenge fantasy series is a triology. You can bet that he and his Hollywood backers won’t put the camera lights on the blood and gore in the Judea and Samarah.

  3. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    Aside from feeding a cult obsession for revenge fantasy films, Sergio’s Italian and Quentin’s Hollywood films offer NIENTE. But the Italian people and their film industry refused to see on film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of their horrid colonial conquest history in North Africa. It took a Lebanese director–later a producer/director of horror films–wash the collective faces of the Italian people with the filming of Omar Makhtur’s life in the non-Hollywood production of The Lion of the Desert. The showing of the film was banned by the Italian government, until Libya’s Khaddafi was invited to Rome, along with Makhtur’s son, in 2009 to accept an official apology from President Bernusconi(sp) for the ethnic cleansing policies and atrocities committed by the Italian military during the period of conquest.

    Concentrate the Beduoins

  4. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    I assume that “it” means Django Unchained?

    Why would I pay good money to watch a film that neither makes me think nor makes me laugh? I’ve seen the Django Unchained trailer and I have watched Corbucci’s YouTube videos of Django with its red-hooded “villans” and all.

    But one doesn’t have to attend a “snuff” film to critique the plot.

    How far the Carradines have fallen…and I thought that they were all deceased! And old Bruce Dern is still in the saddle, too.
    I wonder what revenge fantasy lurks in Tarantino’s mind for the final film of the trilogy?

  5. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    Tarantino tries to come off as an historian and scholar with a “White Paper” revisionist historical investigation into what really went on during that period.

    Hogwash! Tarantino is the grandmeister of Hollywood pulp fiction. Now he’s taken his art to a new dimension…the mass marketing of his Django Unchained dolls to his cult followers. I suspect he’ll be on Oprah’s show next, hyping his wares. P.T. Barnum was right:There’s a sucker born every minute.

    http://www.nextmovie.com/blog/django-unchained-dolls/

  6. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    Thank you Julian Assange and David Irving for revealing what goes on outside and beyond the myopic lens-view of Tarantino, Weinstein and Co.

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