Friday, March 6, 2015
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Django Unchained: The West as it should have been?

Django (Jamie Foxx, left) believes that he and his partner have successfully tricked Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) into accepting their feigned roles as slave traders. Alas, Candie isn’t quite as dense as he seems, and his fury builds to fearsome proportions when the ruse is exposed. As for what happens next ... well, let’s just say it’s vintage Tarantino. Courtesy photo

By
From page A15 | December 28, 2012 |

“Django”

3.5 stars

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walter Goggins

Rating: R, for unrelenting violence and gore, profanity, nudity and considerable ghastly behavior

Wretched excesses aside, this campy lark slyly pokes at American race relations

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

Since Jews were given the vicarious opportunity to blow up Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi goons in 2009’s alternate-history “Inglourious Basterds,” we shouldn’t be surprised that cinematic bad boy Quentin Tarantino would grant African Americans similar cheap thrills, by scolding the pre-Civil War, slave-holding South in the same cheeky manner.

If Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” made you wince, by milking broad comedy from racism, this one will freeze your blood.

But make no mistake: Although “Django Unchained” definitely scores points in the ongoing debate about American race relations, at its heart this film is gleefully exploitative trash: giddily violent, gratuitously blood-soaked and unapologetically self-indulgent.

And yet … undoubtedly a guilty pleasure. You just can’t help admiring Tarantino’s chutzpah.

His revisionist Western takes its title from a 1966 Sergio Corbucci rip-off of Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” — which, in turn, ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” — and starred Franco Nero as a coffin-carrying pistolero who blows into a town-turned-battle zone by feuding Mexican bandits and (you gotta love it) KKK members.

No surprise, then, that Nero himself pops up in a small part here; Tarantino loves to honor his predecessors. He also gets a kick out of “rescuing” familiar film and TV B-actors, and so you’ll spot the likes of Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley and Michael Parks.

As was the case with Leone’s similarly sprawling 1966 epic, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Tarantino — both writer and director here — takes his time setting up this narrative. It’s two years prior to the opening shot of the Civil War, and the story begins as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling dentist of questionable repute, encounters a couple of horse-riding toughs leading a small line of chained slaves, one of them Django (Jamie Foxx).

Except that Schultz isn’t really a dentist; he’s actually a U.S. court-appointed bounty hunter who earns his rewards whether the targets are dead or alive. (Usually dead, then, because that’s easier.) Schultz has long been tracking the notorious Brittle brothers, whom Django can recognize by sight, from a previous encounter. Schultz knows this, and “acquires” Django with the promise of freeing him after the Brittles have been nailed.

As it happens, though, Django rather enjoys the idea of killing nasty white folks; he and Schultz become uneasy allies, then partners and finally genuine friends. Meanwhile, Django has shared his own mission: to be reunited with the wife — Kerry Washington, as Broomhilda — who was sold to another slaveholder after the married couple fumbled an escape attempt.

Schultz is completely sympathetic to this quest, particularly since it evokes the Brünnhilde legend that is so essential to his German heritage. And so, while gut-shooting many of the South’s most wanted criminals, he and Django eventually make their way to “Candyland,” the notorious estate run by the bestial Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the current owner of Broomhilda.

Candie’s idea of a good time is watching two slaves fight, no holds barred, until one literally beats the other to death. With a hammer.

Django, meanwhile, has remade himself into a tight-lipped, bad-ass bounty hunter, complete with snappy duds and ’tude-enhancing shades. We can’t help laughing at our first glimpse of this transformation, but there’s also no doubt that Foxx successfully sells the part.

And so we merrily await what’s to come, knowing it’ll be insanely violent, and secure in the knowledge that while the Deep South’s slave-holding history may not have gone down this way … it probably should have.

Waltz, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his chillingly nasty role in “Inglourious Basterds,” sets an entirely different tone here. His Dr. Schultz is polite, intelligent, clever and quick to condescend; much of this film’s joy comes from the way this character talks down to stupid Americans who lack the wit to realize how badly they’ve just been insulted. Schultz is an outrageous archetype, but that’s all right; we need a few positive characters to offset the heinous behavior of this saga’s various villains.

Top of the heap, in the latter camp, is DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, whose “punishment” for a disobedient slave is to watch the poor wretch torn apart by the plantation dogs: a fate that also meets the full approval of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave. Stephen, it turns out, is a far nastier piece of work than Candie, who at least falls back on perceived racial superiority to justify his behavior; Stephen doesn’t give his fellow slaves a second thought, as long as his own comfort and security are assured.

Along with, we eventually discover, the ability to influence all aspects of his master’s plantation activities. Truth be told, Candie probably couldn’t get along without Stephen, and that’s a match genuinely made in hell.

Although much of the so-called acting in this film is more overstated camp than actual art, the performances delivered by DiCaprio and Jackson are genuinely scary. Candie initially comes off as a privileged, smiling aristocrat who defends his racist beliefs with the dubious application of phrenology; but when DiCaprio’s smile becomes hard, and his eyes compress into flinty, blue-green chips of diamond, the man appears capable of anything.

Jackson, as well, is introduced deceptively as a figure of ridicule: an aging Uncle Tom who bows, shuffles and yassirs to a degree that draws taunts from white crackers and grim expressions of disgust from fellow slaves. But Stephen, as well, is holding back; when the veil parts and his true colors are revealed, he’s a similar nightmare.

Washington, game for anything, makes Broomhilda a woman worth fighting for. We spend the entire film in agony, waiting for the next act of cruelty to be heaped upon her, knowing full well that if Candie has no limits, the same can be said of Tarantino.

Unlike DiCaprio and Jackson, who initially conceal their characters’ inner selves until sudden, climactic reveals, Foxx’s Django evolves slowly. The transition is tantalizing, with Django initially wary and suspicious, then profoundly amused, as he realizes that Schultz truly does mean to take him on as a gun-toting partner. Eventually, as Django grows into this new dynamic, thoroughly enjoying the double-takes of white folks who’ve (for example) never seen a black man on horseback before, Foxx’s bearing blossoms into grim satisfaction.

A feeling we share, it must be mentioned. And that, of course, is the subversive nature of Tarantino’s approach. It’s hard not to feel glibly superior to the racist idiots deliberately censured by this story, but we must be careful not to get too full of ourselves. Much of this film is uncomfortable because we also recognize, all too well, that considerable work remains to be done when it comes to American race relations.

At 165 minutes, though, Tarantino’s film definitely outweighs its welcome, despite a riveting climax of absurdly gory, jaw-dropping excess. As befits Tarantino’s approach, he choreographs such carnage to familiar music quotes lifted from 1960s exploitation flicks; you’ll recognize themes by Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith, and you’ve never heard Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” used to such ironic effect.

I can’t casually recommend this film to the general public, and I shudder to think of unsuspecting patrons who wandered in on Christmas Day — when it opened (!) — without any notion of what was about to smack them senseless.

That said, Tarantino’s fans and folks with a snarky sense of barbed dark humor are apt to have a wonderful time.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

Comments

comments

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

    ‘Topping out': Sign a building beam at the Shrem Museum

    By Jeffrey Day | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    Life after lawn: Fifty greens for shade

    By Katie F. Hetrick | From Page: A1

    Got sun? Indoor herbs can thrive on windowsills

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A3

     
    Quick home improvements that raise your resale value

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    How can we know that the products we buy for our homes are safe?

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

     
    Spring-clean your kitchen in five easy steps

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

    Workshop eyes creating peace through creative play

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B6

     
    Museum brick sales to end this month

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B6

     
    Cabrillo Club plans membership dinner

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B6

    Dryers: Homes’ energy guzzlers just got greener

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A6

     
    Need a new best friend?

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B6 | Gallery

    UCD improving farming, food production with fewer pesticides

    By Kathy Keatley Garvey | From Page: B6 | Gallery

     
    PSAs highlight area nonprofits

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B6

    Peripheral neuropathy support offered

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B6

     
    St. John’s shows off cuisine at brunch

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A11

    Seniors serious about fitness

    By Savannah Holmes | From Page: A11 | Gallery

     
    Pig out at Pig Day Saturday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

    Porkers on display at Hattie Weber Museum

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

     
    .

    Forum

    Tom Meyer cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: B4

     
    Some convicts don’t deserve parole hearings

    By Tom Elias | From Page: B4

    Here’s how to make college cheaper

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B4

     
    Obama’s world is a dangerous place

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: B4

    Dirty laundry on the company line

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B9

     
    .

    Sports

    DHS girls track and field team reloads for 2015

    By Dylan Lee | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    UCD women fall at UCR

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

    Aggie men clinch Big West crown

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Marsh provides radio images of a ‘magical’ Aggie hoops season

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Blue Devil volleyballers cruise in home opener

    By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Sports briefs: Bella Vista slips past DHS softballers

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B12

    .

    Features

     
    Rec Report: Looking ahead to spring break

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

    What’s happening

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: B5

     
    Wineaux: A local diamond in the rough, revisited

    By Susan Leonardi | From Page: A9

    .

    Arts

    Tables available at Vinyl and Music Fair

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A9

     
    Steve Kiser’s work on display at Gallery 1855

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9 | Gallery

    ‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel': Second-rate

    By Derrick Bang | From Page: A10 | Gallery

     
    Learn from experts at ‘Art of Painting’ conference

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A12 | Gallery

    Tom Brousseau to visit ‘Live in the Loam’ on KDRT

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A12

     
    ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ auditions set

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A12

    Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela celebrate Mandela’s legacy

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A12 | Gallery

     
    .

    Business

    Honey, we shrank the SUV — and Europe loves it

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B3 | Gallery

     
    .

    Obituaries

    .

    Comics

    Comics: Friday, March 6, 2015

    By Creator | From Page: B10