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Despite controversies, Tarantino’s ‘Django’ is a blast

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Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013 7:08 am

After an extended hiatus, it feels good to be back. I hope everyone had a festive and joyous holiday season, and may the new year bring good fortune and glad tidings to all.

Now that the salutations are out of the way, we can get to the heart of the matter, and the reason for my return to the pages of the News-Sentinel: Quentin Tarantino has a new movie out, and anyone who’s read me even intermittently at any point over the past 12 years should know that this qualifies as a Major Event.

My deep and abiding love for Quentin surpasses a mere appreciation for his talents as a writer and director. His work has been a major influence on my life since I first saw “Pulp Fiction” at the impressionable age of 11, and it ignited a passion for film and film history that will burn bright until the day I die. I was “into movies” before that, but never before had my mind been awakened to the intricacies of things like story structure and intertextual citation and pop iconography, and so I endeavored to become a serious student of cinema.

More importantly, a mutual interest in “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” was instrumental in my becoming good friends with a certain seventh-grade classmate all those years ago — a girl who, on a recent trip to Disneyland, agreed to become my wife. Our first official date was at a screening of “Grindhouse.” Tarantino posters line the walls of our home. We even have “Pulp Fiction”-inspired tattoos, forever reminding her of her Pumpkin, and me of my Honey Bunny.

Long story short, I’m more like a disciple than a fan — so if the gushing and defensiveness gets a bit out of hand, you’ll have to excuse me. And by the way, keep an eye out next week for my annual rundown of the year’s best movies. I didn’t see all the 2012 releases I wanted to, and certainly not as many as I usually do in a given year, but I’ve been playing catch-up these past few weeks and should, in a few more days, be able to assemble a respectable list.

More than any other filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino has always reminded me of Jean Luc-Godard. Unlike Quentin I’ve never been a fan of the pretentious, fiercely political French auteur, but between Tarantino’s love of jolting “interruptions” of traditional narrative flow and his embodiment of Godard’s “not a just image, just an image” maxim, it’s hard to deny the stylistic and philosophical link between the two filmmakers. And now, with the Southern-set slavery revenge epic “Django Unchained” (its title lifted from the classic Sergio Corbucci B-movie) the typically apolitical Tarantino has even stirred up a political controversy that would make his cinematic idol proud.

“Django” has immediately established itself as the most controversial and polarizing entry in Tarantino’s filmography, due not only to its graphic depictions of bloodshed at a time when violence in the media is under a microscope, but more importantly its use of slavery as a plot element in a stylized, superfluous Spaghetti Western riff. According to many critics (chief among them the noted bigot Spike Lee, who, it is worth noting, has not been a relevant film artist for well over a decade), the horrors of slavery are off-limits to a non-black filmmaker who doesn’t treat the material seriously enough, and any use of “the n-word” is inherently racist even if its use is historically accurate.

Clearly, everyone should take a deep breath and calm down. As anyone with the critical thinking skills of a 10-year-old should see, slavery is not some sacred subject that must always be handled with kid gloves and Spielbergian emotional sensitivity. It was a horrible thing, but like other horrible things, from the Holocaust to 9/11, it should be confronted and ruminated upon, not sidestepped for all eternity.

The rampant criticisms would hold weight if Tarantino were truly dismissive of slavery’s weight and impact, but again, as anyone with any common sense at all should see, “Django Unchained” is fully observant of the evils of slavery — hell, it’s a revenge flick about a horribly abused slave going around gunning down white devils. It takes a truly myopic, bias-bent person to take such a movie and try to slap a “racist” label on it simply because it employs a Spaghetti Western aesthetic and tone.

Anyway, the movie’s a blast. At nearly three hours the film is quite a sit, but quite remarkably, the brisk pacing is such that it only seems about half that long. Tarantino keeps the momentum building, as our hero Django (Jamie Foxx) teams with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to hunt down outlaws in exchange for his freedom, and then sets out to free his wife from the infamous Candyland plantation run by the ruthless, childlike Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

In an ensemble this strong, it’s difficult to identify a standout. Is it Foxx, who exudes effortless cool and crafts Django into one of the most compelling protagonists the screen has seen in ages? Or DiCaprio, who relishes his dialogue and chews the scenery like champ? Maybe it’s Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the elderly Candyland house slave who displays a deep and terrifying loyalty to his master. But if I absolutely had to choose I might go with Waltz, who in an Oscar-nominated performance commands the viewer’s attention in every scene he’s in, delivering his lines with that trademark cadence that makes every word out of his mouth sound like just about the most interesting thing in the world.

Yet, as usual, Tarantino is the real star of the show here. His command of the camera has evolved over the years, and “Django” is gorgeously realized, with evocative cinematography that owes more than a bit to Robert Altman’s classic post-Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” The editing is tight and controlled, despite Tarantino’s tragic loss of his longtime editor Sally Menke a couple years back. And of course, Tarantino’s dialogue is as striking and memorable as ever. All in all, another triumph from a peerless artist who, over the course of seven features and 20 years, has yet to deliver anything short of a masterwork.

“Django Unchained” is rated R for graphic violence and language.

Some obligatory random thoughts on the Oscar nominations

The 2012 Academy Awards were just announced a few hours ago, and although I’ll be doing my usual Oscar roundup on the eve of the telecast, here are just a few immediate thoughts:

Shocks abound in the best director race, with Ben Affleck being snubbed for “Argo” despite his status as the most important filmmaker to emerge in about a decade. So it goes. Also passed over were Quentin Tarantino (I was holding out hope, but not seriously expecting a nod) and Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty,” which I had assumed would be the primary competition for Steven Spielberg and “Lincoln” (he’s going to win it anyway, so I guess it doesn’t matter much  in the end).

Good to see Tom “Baby’s First Fish-Eye Lens” Hooper get shafted for “Les Miserables,” especially since it opened a spot for “Amour’s” Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur who by all rights should have been previously nominated for both “Cache” and “The White Ribbon.” His name may not be known, and his filmography is uneven, but few directors possess such strength of conviction when it comes to issues of style and tone. Nobody makes movies quite like him, and that counts for a lot.

Do I really want to live in a world where Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper are best actor contenders, competing against Daniel freakin’ Day-Lewis (again, though, it doesn‘t ultimately matter since this prize belongs to “Lincoln” as well)? I suppose the fact that Seth MacFarlane is now an Oscar nominee cushions the blow (it’s for best song, but still …).

Wasn’t expecting Christoph Waltz to edge out costar Leonardo DiCaprio in the best supporting actor race, though in the end I do have a slight preference for Waltz’s performance. But what on earth is Alan Arkin doing in this race? Yet, once again, since Tommy Lee Jones is up for “Lincoln,” this is another category that can be considered more or less locked up.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jackjackgittes@gmail.com.

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