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Who doesnít love an origin story?  The becoming of a mere mortal into something extraordinary, something other, better, stronger, faster, etc., is one of the most alluring propositions of any superhero tale, either in comic book form or on film.  Often those hyper-evolutionary myths find their basis in dark, dirty roots, whether the dread of radiation and science gone way too far, or in the case of Django Unchained, the need for a hero to crawl out of the muck and filth of the United Statesí horrible slave-trading past.

Itís a wooden wagon with a giant tooth on top.  The molar bobbing back and forth is a presentiment of the whimsical nature of the gentleman driving beneath it.  A German dentist named Dr. King Schultz rolls up in the middle of a cold Southern night, interrupting a pair of white slave traders leading a shackled gang of freshly purchased black men to their new plantations.  One of the men in chains has some very important information our dentist needs to make an extraction of sorts.  Unfortunately, the doctorís genteel manners and forthright conduct rub the slavers the wrong way and itís soon revealed that the alleged dentist is pretty handy with a firearm.  Leaving the remaining men to deal with their now-unarmed would-be masters as they see fit, Schultz takes the fellow called Django on a path that no slave two years before the Civil War could ever dream of.  Schultz is less a dentist and more a bounty hunter whose Teutonic background and deep sense of fairness make slavery an unpleasant puzzle to him.  Making a deal with the newly-freed ex-slave to keep him on as a sort of sidekick until Django can point out the men Schultz needs to collect, the killer hears Djangoís tale of love for the fair Broomhilda.  Django tells of their being torn apart; sold to different farms after a failed attempt to run away from their original plantation. Djangoís quest to be reunited with his wife touches Schultz, who agrees to assist the slave and trains him in the art of gunslinging, at which the younger man is ďa naturalĒ.  As a paid employee, Django experiences freedoms no other black man in the South is allowed; the right to carry a gun, to ride a horse, and for better or worse, to choose his own clothes.  They make an unlikely and unliked team as the pair spare no lead seeking their bounty targets on the way to rescue Broomhilda from her captivity at the Candyland plantation, owned by the young, arrogant Calvin Candie.  The menís ruse to infiltrate Candyland is put at risk by Stephen, a house slave who likes his place in the white hierarchy just fine, and the sight of Django daring to be anything more than a subjugated servant who knows his place infuriates him.  Can Django and Schultz pull off their plan to save Broomhilda with all the hate and anger of the antebellum South against them?

What a tricky proposition Django Unchained is.  How can the story of a common slave-turned-exceedingly-efficient gunslinger be done with any sensitivity or taste; avoiding insult to the grievous horrors of the slave experience?  The easy answer is give it to Quentin Tarantino.  Tarantino has created a story that takes the comic book premise of Djangoís origin story and uses the characterís experience to expose the vileness of that period in American history and the depth of manís cruelty to man.  The fact that heís wrapped it up in a clever, rousing script and padded it with some of the best performances of the year doesnít hurt either.  Django is a cowboy, plain and simple; itís where this cowboy comes from that makes the difference.  The audience sees Djangoís world and the places he couldíve ended up; including as one of Calvin Candieís ďMandingo fighters,Ē where heíd literally have to wrestle until he was dead or unable, after which heíd be fed - alive - to the Candie hounds.  Giving us more reason for the slave to become the man he does besides the very real need to escape his bonds or some revenge premise (Which would have basically made this Inglourious Basterds in the Deep South), Django has a purpose everyone can relate to; the love and protection of his wife.  That Django and Broomhilda were married at all was an anomaly in that time, as slave masters didnít want their property to form bonds together and have more reason to run away.  That they are pulled apart so cruelly seems only too reasonable.  Early on, after hearing Djangoís story, King Schultz tells him the German legend of Siegfried, who conquered a mountain full of mystical enemies to rescue his love, Brunhilde, for whom Djangoís bride was loosely named.  Indeed, Djangoís obstacles seem nearly as insurmountable and his determination to reunite with his lady madly heroic.  Instead of the swords and spears of ancient heroes, we have rifles and six-shooters.  We get why King Schultz is so taken with Django; who doesnít love a lover?  And the vastly intelligent, if forcibly untried slave is clearly a box of surprises that not only intrigues Schultz with his potential, but appeals to the German manís clear sense of impish perversity as someone who doesnít share his adopted countryís proclivity toward treating other men like chattel.  In his way, Schultz is as alien to the world around him as is the sight of Django on a horse to the white men around them.  Djangoís growth is fascinating, as well, as one could worry this might be a story where the black heroís power comes courtesy of the white benefactor, and, yes, that happens early on because logically, there wouldnít have been any other way for Django to have access to guns, horses, education, cool sunglasses, etc.  By the filmís climax, the audience sees that the student has surpassed his teacher and Django uses not only his redoubtable gunslinging skills, but his quick mind to call upon his experience with slave owners to promote his and Schultzís various schemes.  Itís easy to read that the relationship between Django and Schultz becomes one of true friendship and mutual respect.

The most linear and straightforward of all of Tarantinoís works, one shouldnít think that director has gone soft; thereís plenty of Tarantino-esque moments to keep the fans thrilled, including gallons of gushing blood from Django and Schultzís many shoot-outs. Iíd wondered if in the name of austerity or somberness toward the subject matter, more was going to be affected than the loss of the usual elliptical timeline one expects from a Tarantino film?  Happily the absurd, oddball touches are intact; including the riotously hilarious sequence where a gang of DiY Ku Klux Klan members decide to stalk the bounty hunter and his decidedly unservile partner.  The discussion of the discomfort of the burlaps bags they use as hoods is one of the most memorable moments of any Tarantino film.

Egads, the performances.  As the hero of the tale, Jamie Foxx runs beautifully from shattered, disheartened slave, to bewildered apprentice, to self-confident, determined hero.  He sits a horse (His own, apparently, called Cheetah) very nicely and shoots down bad guys convincingly.  The almost-obligatory Tarantino pop culture homage moment appears in a quick scene between Foxxís Django and 1966 Django star, Franco Nero in a saloon and is very sweet.  Christoph Waltz once again shows himself to be a member emeritus of the Tarantino ensemble with his Dr. King Schultz, whose knowledge of orthodonty is somewhat less than his way around a shotgun.  As he did in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz plays another character with serious quirks as Schultzís eccentricities are similar, if not entirely more benevolent than Hans Landaís.  The joy of Waltzís performance is that through the sheen of cool built into the character with his off-beat manner and dialog, Waltz lets you see into the heart of him and never makes the audience question Schultzís actions, or why he takes to Django.  Itís a work of many layers and executed brilliantly.  I would say it was the standout of the piece, but for the abundance of equally amazing renderings.  Django Unchained is the best thing Iíve ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio in - period.  Iíve enjoyed him in other things, but his performance as the egomaniacal slave owner is - pardon the pun - a real departure.  Candie, who is written like Rhett Butler gone terribly, terribly wrong, is a role that requires near-possession by his interpreter and an abundance of control to bring him convincingly to life.  Heís the over-the-top villain that brings the comic book aspect to the entire struggle, but cannot be played winking at the viewer.  DiCaprio completely nails it by sinking his teeth, nails and everything else into the partÖ literally.  At one point, while so caught up in a threatening, megalomaniac rant, we see DiCaprio actually cut his hand during the scene and use his own dripping blood to further convince the audience what a sick puppy Candie is.  Candieís skeezy smarm, his viewpoint that all he surveys and everyone in it is his to do with as he sees fit, is pure cyanide in the mint julep.  I might say DiCaprioís Candie steals the picture, but in that regard, heís running a heavy race against his own house slave, Stephen.  Stephenís actor was unrecognisable to me as he rushed out of the main plantation house to cast a withering look on Django, the audacious horse-riding, gun-carrying freed slave.  Beneath the stooped posture and snow-white fuzz around the temples of an elderly man, a pair of piercing eyes stares and squints, and as he seethes into a long, slow burn, the nostrils flare and suddenly itís Samuel L. Jackson.  It took a good five seconds into the close-up before I could recognise the well-known actor and not because the make-up was so great - it is, actually - but because the physical transformation Jackson makes as the ancient house slave is so total.  At turns a nagging parrot and haranguing busybody making the lives of anyone under him hell; in his place at Candyland and as an unexpected mentor to Calvin, Stephen is a character rarely seen in films about slavery.  The power behind the plantation throne that doesnít want things to change; who will lay his vengeance upon anyone who threatens that carefully-placed order, even Calvin himself.  When Schultz requests the German-speaking female slave that lives at Candyland, Stephen throws a fit that Broomhilda wonít face her punishment for an escape attempt, being brought out of the wooden sweatbox sheíd been scheduled to lie nude in for eleven days.  Itís Stephen that sets the dogs of war on the interlopers when he gets a whiff that they might be making a fool of his master.  Propelled by self-interest and more than happy to act against what serves him best in the long run, the Uncle Tom on steroids character is easy to hate, but never one-dimensional.  Literally shuffling from the infirm, doddering servant to the steely-spined sentinel of Candyland, I donít know when Samuel L. Jackson has ever played a character with such depth.  Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to have originally brought Jackson to the publicís attention in Pulp Fiction and then reintroducing him these many years later to that same audience, which will be astounded by him once again for the power of this performance.

I donít know how, maybe itís having a certain a humanity, maybe itís embracing the cultures of the many films and genres heís watched and maintaining an affinity for those worlds and experiences, but somehow Tarantino pulls off Django Unchained beautifully.  The eye-popping comic book violence and even the countless uses of the N-word make perfect sense.  With Django Unchained, Tarantino, through his incredible, outrageous Spaghetti Western Superman fantasy, tells the truth.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 24th, 2012

 

Added Bonus: We had the chance to pipe in a question during the Django Unchained press conference in NYC.  Hereís our little tÍte-ŗ-tÍte with Quentin Tarantino and his cast, including Christoph Waltz, Samuel Jackson and Don Johnson.

 

The Lady Miz Diva: Thank you so much for this amazing film, it was a total blast.

Quentin Tarantino:  I like your Battle Royale shirt.

Samuel L. Jackson: Right?

 

LMD:  I knew someone would know this shirt.

QT: {Laughs}
 

LMD:  Mr. Tarantino, I know that before production began on Kill Bill, there were a lot of kung fu movie stills and posters you bought (from Jerry Ohlingerís Movie Material Store in NYC) and also World War II articles from there for Inglourious Basterds.  I wondered what having that external stuff does; whether itís stills, posters, things you watch, that helps you formulate what we see as the final picture?  And for the cast, what, if any, external sources helped you develop or deepen your characters?

QT:  Wow! Thatís a great question.

Don Johnson:  Can we get to that one after lunch?

{Everyone laughs}

QT:  Yeah, thatís a really great question.  I think all these actors can actually tell you the feeling they have, like the first time they walk into my office and they see all the 60ís western posters up and the Blaxploitation posters up and all this viscera thatís there that doesnít exist anymore in movie posters.  Now everything just looks like a Vanity Fair photo shoot.  Every single goddamn movie looks like a Vanity Fair photo shoot.  The idea of drawn posters just doesnít exist anymore and those were the posters.  Those were really cool.  But that style of viscera, whether it be the Spaghetti Western album covers, the Blaxploitation album posters, the posters, all that stuff, Iím kinda of trying to get at that.  When my stuff pops off in the big way that it does, or the imagery Iím trying to evoke - the costumes we employ in the film that always have a bit of a comic book panache - Iím trying to kind of get those kinds of illustrations in life in my flicks.

SLJ:  Comic book pan-ass.

Christoph Waltz:  In a way, I think ďoutside sourceĒ is a contradiction in terms.  I can only speak for myself, but the source is the script and the script has a source.  I can point it out to you. {Points to Tarantino}

QT:  But on that same line, frankly, we got the first issue of the Django Unchained comic book thatís come out now.  The thing thatís interesting about the comic book is we keep the entire script in the comic book.  So some of the sequences and big chapters that we dropped and we didnít bother shooting them because we didnít want a four hour movie are in the comic book.  I gotta say Iím as excited about the comic book as I am about the movie. Itís boss! {Laughs}

DJ:  I could tell you that that period in time is one of my favourites in history, in early developing America because itís full of deceit and itís rich in human character and the lack thereof.  From the Native Americans, to slavery, and so on and so forth; Iíve read a lot about it.  Blood and Thunder (by Hampton Sides) is a great book Iíve read before I started this film, and thereís a lot of outside material.  For me, I like to start with outside information and research and start layering it into the ethics of the time, the social graces of the time.  Did they have indoor toilets?  They didnít.  How were manners created?  So, I start from the outside and then I just slowly started to bring it all inside and emotional stuff like that.  And a lot of that comes, like Christoph was saying, thereís the source {points to Tarantino}, and for the character work, for me, I like to know what itís like on that day in that time, with that energy running around.  I do a lot of that work way before I get there, so that when Iím there, it just comes out, hopefully.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 16th, 2012

 

 

 

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