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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Quentin Tarantino
MPAA RATING
Rated R
RUNNING TIME
165 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Columbia Pictures
DVD EXTRAS
80+ minutes of extras; Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained featurette, a 20 Years In The Making: The Tarantino XX Blu-ray™ Collection feature, and a Django Unchained Soundtrack Spot. The Blu-ray/DVD Combo release will also include 2 additional featurettes ("Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained", "The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis"), and a digital copy of the film.
 "Django Unchained" is Crude, Crass, Offensive and Bloody Amazing  
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Sending a dedicated pacifist to watch a Quentin Tarantino film is about as logical as sending a Klan member to check out a Spike Lee joint.

However, logic tends to get thrown out the window when Quentin Tarantino becomes involved. At least, that's about the only explanation I have for why I absolutely loved Django Unchained, Tarantino's almost three-hour film that will offend many (including the aforementioned Spike Lee), entertain many more and likely find itself sitting on Oscar's doorstep when the golden statuettes are handed out on February 24th, 2013.

Django Unchained may prove to be too extreme for the typical conservative Academy voters, but with the film's award-winning pedigree it's unthinkable that it won't pick up multiple nominations even considering that 2012 has been a stronger than usual year for Hollywood.

You'd have to be insane or a sociopath to not be offended by Django Unchained, a film that manages to utter the dreaded N-word well over 100 times (I've read everything from 110 to 159), but somehow never manages to misuse it within the context of the film. The N-word should be offensive, especially for 2012 audiences, but Tarantino's film is set in the period just before the Civil War and the word was not only abundantly used but it was considered socially acceptable to do so.

Tarantino does a lot of things - sugar coating ain't one of them.

Awards season always seems to bring out the 2-hour plus films and, for the most part, they're painfully excessive and self-indulgent creations. While Django Unchained runs fifteen minutes shy of the three-hour mark, the film is so consistently involving, entertaining and well paced that it's not only one of the most entertaining films I've seen this year but also one of the very few where I never found myself staring down at my watch.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who gets freed by a Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter whose latest target just so happens to be a rather vile criminal with whom Django is familiar. Their quick success in capturing their man leads to a longer term partnership, as Django agrees to help Schultz for the winter while in return Schultz will help Django track down his long lost wife (Kerry Washington), who has been bought by one of the South's more notorious slave owners, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

So, how exactly does a film that violates pretty much every value I have end up being so entertaining?

Despite Tarantino's relentless commitment to over-the-top excesses, it's pretty obvious from point one that Tarantino is aiming less to offend and much more to create a spaghetti Western vibe grounded in a rather disturbing reality. You can certainly make a point that the N-word is offensive, but it's pretty hard to argue that the characters in this film would have used it freely and in a disparaging manner. However, rather than play it as simple brutality, which would have been lazy and difficult to justify, Tarantino does a stellar job of using the film's plot points and dialogue to drive home the sheer lunacy of it all.

There's a lot of lunacy in Django Unchained.

Jamie Foxx is one of those actors who is capable of being both brilliant (Ray) and exasperating (The Soloist). He's well cast as Django, a man who starts out as proud yet wounded before he becomes an empowered man with an outrageous bravado. It's an absolute blast watching Foxx take Django on a believable trajectory, a journey from victim to victor to, well, all over the place. In order for a Tarantino film to really work, it's necessary for the cast to create believable characters whose behavior seems completely believable even when it's completely absurd. Inglourious Basterds was a hit-and-miss success, but just about everything about Django Unchained works.

Christoph Waltz, who captured an Oscar award for his work in Inglourious Basterds, proves that his Oscar-winning work was no fluke with a performance here that may be even more award-worthy even though there will be some naysayers who will say it's simply Waltz doing a spaghetti Western version of Col. Landa.

Hogwash.

Waltz is delightfully dapper as this German dentist-turned-bounty hunter whose inclinations are decidedly anti-slavery, but who is also insightful enough to know how to play the game. In this case, the game becomes turning Django into a "Mandingo," a free black man who is pretty much more hated than most whites because he should know better. In this case, Django is called upon to be an expert in a particularly brutal form of wrestling where even the survivor may not wish to survive. It's a popular sport at Candieland, Calvin Candie's prized plantation, and if Django is to have any hope of getting his beloved wife back he'll have to act the part to perfection.

If you've always hated Tarantino, Django Unchained isn't likely to be the film that will change your mind. This is Tarantino being Tarantino to perfection - brutally violent, hilariously funny, reverent to its cinematic roots and beyond biting in its satire. The only film that really comes close to it in recent years would be Lars Von Trier's Manderlay, a disappointingly under-seen film. The film is obviously inspired by the Franco Nero-led Django from the 1960's, though it really gets more of its substance and vibe from 1975's Mandingo.

Much has been made about Leonardo DiCaprio's appearance as Calvin Candie, a character he so vividly and disgustingly brings to life that I may finally be ready to let go of the baggage associated with not being able to look at DiCaprio without thinking he looks like a kid acting like an adult. In Django Unchained, he looks like one seriously sadistic slave owner with small man's syndrome and a serious need of a dental hygienist. It was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Tarantino to weave into Candie's story a scenario that even calls into question why his slaves don't rebel - they do, after all, significantly outnumber the whites on the plantation. Much of the reason likely has to do with Stephen, a rather vile "Uncle Tom" type character whose loyalty to his master is expressed in ways that will simply make your jaw drop. Stephen is magnificently constructed by Samuel L. Jackson, who unquestionably takes this character places far beyond what's contained within the written word. While some leading African-American film figures have seriously called into question the film's treatment of slavery, the presence of Jackson, a well known activist on race issues, should at least lead some to see the film before pre-judging it.

Django Unchained isn't likely to be considered Tarantino's best, that title likely still belongs to either Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, though it may very well be his most wholly satisfying and entertaining film. The film is photographed with both levity and reverence by Robert Richardson, with a masterful musical accompaniment and Fred Raskin's excellent editing work. Raskin replaces longtime Tarantino collaborator Sally Menke, who passed away in 2010.

There could be so much more said about Django Unchained, but it's simply a film that you have to experience for yourself if it sounds like your kind of thing. By now, enough buzz has been created about the film that you've likely already decided for yourself if you're going to see the film. Easily one of the best and boldest films of 2012, Django Unchained may or may not end up getting a ton of love from Oscar but there's no doubt that Tarantino fans will leave the theater already planning their next trip to Candieland.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic  
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