Saturday, January 5, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Django Unchained

From the first image, I knew I would love this movie. "Django Unchained" is another outstanding effort from Quentin Tarantino. The film tells the story of freed slave Django, who joins forces with a German bounty hunter to rescue his wife from an evil plantation owner. On paper it sounds like an outdated spaghetti western, but in the hands of Tarantino, the genre is given a modern breath of life.
This film just exudes so much style. Tarantino's signature touch permeates throughout "Django Unchained" with its eye-catching visuals, sharp dialogue and a killer soundtrack. They lay the tone for a surprisingly hilarious film. As such, I can almost understand Spike Lee's feelings towards the film. At times, I personally found myself feeling slightly uncomfortable for laughing in some scenes. Indeed, the funniest scene in the film is during a raid by the Ku Klux Klan. Unlike Lee however, it didn't feel frivolous or disrespectful to me. Much of the humour actually serves to shed light on the stupidity of ignorance and racism.
Tarantino really did his research for this film. Despite the heightened reality of the plot, he managed to touch on some potent truths about this dark period in American history. Even though there are many funny moments throughout, they are interlaced with scenes of disturbing brutality. As a result, we never lose the feeling that there is a shroud of evil and wickedness over the land.
Although the effectiveness of this film is largely due to Tarantino's abilities as a writer-director, the 3 standout performances (Christopher Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson) deserve high praise. It's hard to pick an MVP from this lot, as they are all excellent in different ways. Although "Django Unchained" is named after Jamie Foxx's character, the film really belongs to Christoph Waltz. He drives the proceedings of the plot and creates a very charismatic character. He has a natural candor as Dr. King Schultz that suggests that he is the most comfortable in Tarantino's universe. DiCaprio also shines as he brilliantly plays against type, reminding us of his versatility and considerable talent. Unlike his typically tense, "tortured soul" roles, he is so loose and unhibited here. His Calvin Candie is almost flamboyant, but grounded in real menace. DiCaprio shows great skill as he never goes "over-the-top" with his interpretation of this villain. The character that resonates most in this film though, is Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson). His character represents perhaps the most awful legacy that resulted from slavery. He plays a self-loathing(hateful towards his own race) house slave that sucks up to "massa". If you know about black history, you will recognize the painful truth in this character, as some of slavery's existence was fueled by blacks who betrayed their own people. It's a sad psychology that lingers today, as evidenced by the inferiority complex that hinders the ambitiousness of many underprivileged black youths. In casting this role, Tarantino couldn't have made a better choice. Jackson plays the role with a brave, "no bullshit" integrity that is hard to pull off.
Compared with this trio (Waltz, DiCaprio, Jackson), Foxx is fine in the lead role but doesn't have the same magnetic screen presence. That being said, his character provides a great source of entertainment, especially in the more serious/dramatic tail end of the film. As a black person, I must admit that it gave me immense satisfaction to see Django kicking ass, as if it were some real retribution for our horrific past.
On the more "technical" side, the production values are just as exceptional as you would expect. I love the production design with the saloons, opulent plantation houses and fields of cotton really capturing the period and setting. The costume design is also brilliant, as the clothing choices are all very specific to each character. As with all his films, much of the energy comes from his exciting camerawork too. I just loved how the camera moves to tell the story visually. Finally, it can't be overstated how awesome the soundtrack is. The songs are great on their own, but when placed in the film, it really makes the script sing (pun intended). Basically, I loved everything about this movie. If I were to think of a complaint, I would say that some of the scenes felt like they could have been edited down a little. They never felt like filler though and they always had a purpose within in the plot, so it wasn't an issue for me.
If you know about Quentin Tarantino, you've probably heard about his love for cinema. In this film however, I was remined of something equally important - his love for his audience. Even when "Django Unchained" slips into seemingly gratuitous violence or talky scenes, he never alienates the viewer. He knows what his fans want and delivers it with aplomb without forgetting to make it artful. Tarantino loves to entertain us and if he keeps making movies like this, the affection will continue to be mutual.

This film arrived late on the awards circuit, but it has quickly made its presence known. With its strong production values, I could see it being a contender in numerous "below-the-line" categories. Specifically, I can easily see it getting nominations for Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Costume Design. As you watch these actors deliver Tarantino's lines, it's very impressive to see his skill in wordplay. I fully expect him to be rewarded for his great writing with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Likewise, his direction is noteworthy and he could therefore be in the running for a Best Director nod. The trickiest category however is Best Supporting Actor. The film has 3 deserving candidates (Christoph Waltz, Leo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson) but this unfortunately brings up the possibility of them cancelling each other out. As I said in the review, they are all uniquely excellent within in the film. I figure Waltz has the best shot, as he has the most to do (he's really a co-lead), but Leo should also get a lot of respect for successfully challenging himself. The campaign seems to be pushing the pair and they could both realistically get in. Unfortunately, this leaves out Samuel L. Jackson who delivers one of his best performances.
Due to its subject matter, the film has sparked some controversy. However, the current nominating rules should reward films like this which tend to garner very passionate support. Hence, I think this is a strong contender for a Best Picture nod. Will the Academy like this film as much as I did? We'll find out soon enough!

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