REVIEW – Django Unchained

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In a way, Django Unchained is the ultimate culmination of Quentin Tarantino’s career: a gory blaxploitation western. Tarantino has long flaunted his love of 70s era grindhouse cinema as well as Sergio Leone westerns. Jackie Brown was his most overt ode to blaxploitation, but many of his films contain nods to the badass films of Pam Grier and Melvin Van Peebles. His love for spaghetti westerns is also blatantly worn on his sleeve. The Kill Bill films and Inglorious Basterds were basically westerns in disguise. Django Unchained finds Tarantino finally working in the era of the western, and, therefore, it’s his most straightforward exploration of the western genre. It is also his most genuine exploration of the blaxploitation genre, despite Jackie Brown‘s cast and subject matter. To cut to the chase: this film is not racist and, in fact, presents a pretty powerful message about slavery.

The story revolves around the eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and their quest to find Django’s wife as well as collect bounty on no-good white criminals along the way. Dr. Schultz frees Django and introduces him to the bounty hunting game, while also agreeing to help Django track down his beautiful wife (Kerry Washington) who is owned by the vicious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The first half of the film follows Django and Dr. Shultz as they bond and kill evil white men. DiCaprio doesn’t pop up until the second half, when the heroes finally track down Django’s wife to DiCaprio’s plantation. Despite the film’s length – and length of time before a real antagonist pops up – the film never drags. This is a credit to Tarantino’s writing as well as his eye for staging a scene. The man presents scene after entertaining scene, and none of them feel superfluous. Tarantino walks a tight rope through most of the film, showcasing the horror of slavery (very bluntly and brutally, at that), while also being the funniest film Tarantino has made.

This is where the controversy comes in. Many critics and a few other filmmakers (Spike Lee, who else?) have criticized Tarantino for gleefully using the n-word and for inserting comedy into a film about slavery. Spike Lee’s criticism deserves to be out rightly dismissed because he hasn’t seen the film, but comedy can be a powerful tool in social commentary. One of the funniest scenes in the film showcases the Klan as a bunch of idiots who can’t see properly through the bags on their heads. Tarantino ridicules them, and ridicule takes away their power. And as for the use of the n-word, this film takes place in a time when the word was used all the time, and to pretend it wasn’t is to white wash history. And has everyone forgot about Blazing Saddles? Mel Brooks was doing this stuff in the 70s! No one’s talking about what a bad influence he is on American audiences. I suspect most of these criticisms come from overly sensitive, PC critics. And I suspect Spike Lee’s criticism comes from a deep seeded envy of Tarantino’s career.

Now, despite all the controversy, this is a really good film. Is it Tarantino’s best? Definitely not. But it is one of his best, and surely one of the best films of the year. Say what you will about Tarantino as a person or the subject matter of his films, no one can deny his firm grasp on the medium. The craft behind this film is top notch. And Tarantino’s love for film can be felt behind every shot. In a time when many films can feel cynical and calculated, Tarantino’s enthusiasm is such a breath of fresh air. It also helps that Tarantino has a brilliant cast working at the top of their game. Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious Stephen, all give award worthy performances.

If you’re squeamish about violence and language, stay away from this film – and from any Tarantino film, for that matter. For everyone else, however, this is a must see.

Grade: A

 

 

Academy Awards 2013 – My Money’s On…

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Well, the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards have been announced. There were actually a few surprises this year. The directing category in particular is quite interesting. Both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were overlooked in favour of first time director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and veteran Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour). Affleck and Bigelow must be shocked. They were considered virtual locks in the category only a few days ago. The snubs are both good and bad in my opinion. They are good because the Academy is breaking with tradition. Instead of being all predictable mainstream veterans, the Academy went with a mixed bag. Thrown in with the typical veterans are a first time indie director and a veteran director who rarely works in the English language. This is exciting for anyone who is constantly let down by the Academy’s typical safe nominations. However, the bad thing about this is that Spielberg is pretty much a lock to win. Only Affleck or Bigelow really had a shot at beating Spielberg. Now he’s virtually unchallenged. Ang Lee has an outside shot, but it’s doubtful.

Other pleasant surprises include a writing nomination for Moonrise Kingdom (which should’ve been up for far more awards in my opinion), and an acting nomination for young Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). She now becomes the youngest ever best acting nominee, and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) becomes the oldest best acting nominee. Everything else is rather predictable.

Now, for your reading pleasure, I will lay out who I think will win in each of the major categories. Keep in mind that I have not seen every one of these movies, however, based on buzz, I am pretty confident in my picks.

Best Picture:

Lincoln: Lincoln looks like the film to beat this year. It’s a stuffy period piece about a famous historical figure starring one of the best actors out there and helmed by a legendary director. The Academy loves this type of movie. There’s an outside chance that they could give the award to Argo despite the lack of a directing nomination, but my money is on Lincoln.

Best Director:

Steven Spielberg: As I stated previously, this is Spielberg’s contest to lose now that Affleck and Bigelow are out of the race.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Daniel Day-Lewis: Again, a lock. The Academy loves performances based on real life figures, and they also love DDL. There’s a small outside chance that Joaquin Phoenix could grab the award for The Master, but it’s unlikely given the mixed reactions to the film.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

Jennifer Lawrence: She’s been the favourite all season, and it looks like she’s still favoured to win. There’s an outside chance for Emmanuelle Riva, but it’s not likely. The Academy probably won’t give David O. Russell a directing award nor give Silver Linings Playbook the best picture award either, so expect them to reward the movie in the acting categories.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

Philip Seymour Hoffman: This is probably the toughest category as every nominee has won before. I give Hoffman the edge because The Master will probably be shut out of everything else. However, Robert DeNiro also has a shot for Silver Linings Playbook.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

Anne Hathaway: The Academy loves musicals. Despite Les Misérables mixed reviews, they will likely give Hathaway the acting award because she sings in the film and the movie is unlikely to get many other awards.

Best Original Screenplay:

Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal: Zero Dark Thirty will likely pick up an award here. I’d like to see Wes Anderson win for Moonrise Kingdom, and there’s a small chance he could, but it’s likely the Academy will throw Zero Dark Thirty a bone and give Mark Boal the award.

Best Screenplay based on Previous Material:

Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell: David O. Russell has the best shot here at winning. Silver Linings Playbook is dialogue heavy and a real actor’s movie. Therefore, the Academy will most likely reward it. There’s an outside chance for Chris Terrio (Argo) as well.

Best Animated Feature:

Frankenweenie: I’m going to go out on a limb with this one. This could be the year that Pixar (Brave) does not win. It could end up splitting votes with Wreck-It Ralph and giving the edge to Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.

Best Foreign Film:

Amour: Odds are that Amour will win the best foreign film award given that it’s up for Best Picture as well as Best Director. However, there is the outside chance that its many nominations could hurt it in this category, but it’s doubtful.

Best Documentary:

Searching for Sugar Man: I’ll go with Searching for Sugarman here based on what I’ve heard – which is nothing but glowing praise.

Best Cinematography:

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda: I have not seen Life of Pi, but by all accounts it’s visually spectacular and contains some of the best usage of 3D ever seen. Although, I’d love to see Roger Deakins win for Skyfall, it’s unlikely they’d give a Bond film such a prestigious award. There’s also an outside chance that the Academy will go very traditional and give the award to Janusz Kaminski for Lincoln.

Best Editing:

Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor: Zero Dark Thirty will likely win for editing based solely on the tension filled third act. Argo has an outside shot here as well.