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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Entertaining Spectacle

Django Unchained
stars
Starring Jamie Foxx, Samuel Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio

JUST CALL HIM OSCAR: Leonardo DiCaprio, along with Samuel Jackson, should be front-runners for an Academy Award this year from their performances in ‘Django.’ Courtesy photo

JUST CALL HIM OSCAR: Leonardo DiCaprio, along with Samuel Jackson, should be front-runners for an Academy Award this year from their performances in ‘Django.’ Courtesy photo

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of Quentin Tarantino films: the good ones and the great ones. For the sake of this discussion, I will leave the utterly regrettable “Death Proof” off the table. Everybody gets one; for me, it was his horrid half of the failed “Grindhouse” experience. To that point, I was starting to think the man was incapable of making anything other than excellence, but “Death Proof” was bad. Still, outside of that one little uninspired failure, Tarantino has cranked out some of the most memorable movies of the past 20 years. His latest, “Django Unchained,” is a brutally violent, patently offensive and damn entertaining spectacle.  Yet, it’s still short of greatness.

Actually, using the word “short” seems unfair; Tarantino has taken to the trend of other filmmakers and churned out a two hour and 45-minute opus that feels mercilessly long in parts. There’s a lot of fat in “Django Unchained” that could have been trimmed for the benefit of the audience.  The movie feels like one long director’s cut. Indulgent is something I’m used to with Tarantino. The man lives for excess and rarely censors himself. At some point his self-indulgent style begins to clash with his ability to tell a story and ends up deterring the final film. And it’s too bad because there is so much to like about “Django Unchained.”

It’s an unapologetic and ultra-violent spaghetti western, set in the South in the years leading up to the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who has been separated from his wife and sold. He is freed by a bounty hunter, Doctor King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is looking for a group of wanted killers. Schultz needs Django to identify these law-breakers so he can collect a hefty reward. The two become fast friends, and soon Schultz is teaching Django the trade of hunting men for profit. But Django is haunted by the memory of his loving wife and wants to track her down. Schultz agrees to help him find her.

Their investigations lead them to rural Mississippi and the plantation of a remarkable dandy named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django employ a plan to get into Candie’s good graces by posing as slave-fight promoters and then find an opportunity to purchase Django’s wife. The first act takes off with such speed. It’s a fantastic blend of action and humor. Tarantino is a master of establishing a world where anything can and will happen.

Within the first 20 minutes, there are a handful of perfectly crafted scenes that set the events of the film in motion. It’s the second act where the film begins to drag—and the third act is so unnecessarily long it nearly derails the entire endeavor. This is a movie desperately in need of containment. There’s so many great scenes and memorable moments that end up losing impact due to the poor pacing and spiraling narrative, which never seems under anyone’s control.

The performances are amazing. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better! He’s the kind of villain that most movies would kill for: a twisted devil with a crooked smile and sweeter than a mint julep. I can’t think of a performance as entertaining or as ugly.

Samuel Jackson comes very close as a depraved house slave with a particularly mean streak. I don’t know what it is about Tarantino, but he’s able to wring performances out of actors I wasn’t aware they were even capable of. Jackson has appeared in over a 100 films, but not one comes close to his character here. It’s amazing to see a familiar performer take audiences someplace new. I would have no problem seeing DiCaprio or Jackson walk away with an Academy Award for their work here. Their performances alone warrant the price of admission.

On the other side, Jamie Foxx is merely adequate as Django. To be fair, he’s given the least to do. He seems almost out of place as the cool and quiet hero while the other actors get to chew on all the scenery.

The real failure of “Django Unchained” is the meandering and downright confounding pacing. There are so many unneeded scenes and a completely unneeded final 20 minutes, which tack on so much extra weight to an already bloated movie. There seemed to be a perfectly natural place to end the movie with a violent shootout, which pit good against evil. Then they stop the carnage long enough to add some pointless scenes that lead to—you guessed it—another super violent shootout. Sometimes it feels like Tarantino is his own worst enemy.

Speaking of…

There’s a moment in the movie that is so painfully awful: a cameo by the man himself playing an Australian mining employee.  Just at the point where I was wishing for the movie to end, he shows up and murders an Australian accent like a point-blank shot to the mouth.  I realize what a talent the man is behind the lens, but at some point someone on the production needed to tell him that it doesn’t translate to performance. It’s such a terrible part at a time when the movie just needs to be steered toward a conclusion. It seems like such an unlikely gaffe from a well-known talent.

Last year was rife with films that just felt too long for their own good. Blockbusters pushed the three-hour mark, and the vast majority of them did not work: “Cloud Atlas,” “The Hobbit” and now “Django.” Though I liked the latter because of so many good scenes and great performances, the difference between “good” and “great” is the inability to curb the excess.

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