Possessing something of an interest in science I am, of course, conversant in regards to the subject of parallel universes. At least on the Sunday Supplement level. So, as I understand the concept, there must exist, somewhere in the wilds of Creation, a universe where Chuck Jones is making movies like "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs", and Quentin Tarentino is making classic Warner Bros. cartoons.
Which is my rather oblique way of saying "Django Unchained" has been the most fun I've had at a Western since "Silverado".
Merriam-Webster carries the following as one of the definitions of "homage": "Something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another". Throughout his career Tarentino has built a reputation as a director preeminent in the effort to raise the concept of Homage to an art form. Yes, homages can and have appeared in films before Tarentino arrived on the scene. Most of the more clever examples, however, were a part of satires or spoofs. Quentin Tarentino is many things, but a satirist he definitely is not. Whereas Tarentino shares the successful satirist quality of a loving familiarity with the source work, he always approaches it at face value, rather than making fun. A subtle but important difference. "Django Unchained" is neither a satire or a spoof, but a 165 minute round of applause to the salad days of the Spaghetti Western.
Which is the main reason I made the Chuck Jones reference earlier. As with Tarentino, Jones had a needle-sharp eye for homage, and there was always a gentle undercurrent of respect for the source material. The audience would often smile and laugh, but the love was also evident. It is no accident that Tarentino's "Kill Bill" films are perhaps the closest anyone's ever come to a live-action Road Runner cartoon.
It's certainly no secret that Tarentino has always been guided by the tropes and icons of popular culture, applying his own unique spin, and "Django Unchained" certainly isn't an exception. To briefly sum up the story: Jamie Foxx plays Django . . . a 19th century slave freed by a former German dentist (Christoph Waltz) turned American West bounty hunter. The bounty hunter, Dr. Schulz, is in search of three men who'll provide him with a particularly rich reward if brought in dead or alive (with the doctor seemingly preferring the former distinction), but he has no idea what his targets look like. On the other hand Django does, so Dr. Schulz acquires his help in order to track the men down. A bond of sorts eventually forms between the two, and Django also takes up the occupation of bounty hunter, mainly to locate and recover his wife (Kerry Washington) who had been sold away from him. Along the way people end up getting shot, shot, shot, beaten up, blown up and shot.
(I suspect we will not see Quentin Tarentino making films for the Hallmark Channel.)
I have spent some time in contemplation as to whether a person who doesn't appreciate Spaghetti Westerns could find any sort of enjoyment in this film. My conclusion is that the coin which is Quentin Tarentino has two sides, and even if one doesn't care for Westerns, there is always the convoluted wit which makes up each Tarentino script, as well as the sheer impact of his scenes. Among his abilities, Tarentino also possesses the enviable skill of creating characters who the audience can sympathize with while, at the same time, possessing a moral or ethical compass entirely 180 degrees in the opposite direction (I mean think about it objectively with me for a moment here. Throughout all of "Pulp Fiction" perhaps the only truly innocent character was Fabienne. Otherwise you have a collection of thugs, murderers, crooks, cheats and pushers). In Tarentino's universe there is little room for angels (if this tends to trouble you, then consider why Dante's "Inferno" is more popular than his "Paradiso").
(To the above I must add that enjoyment of the film requires the ability to not only watch people being shot, but watching people being S*H*O*T. Bullets in "Django Unchained" have two distinct effects. Either they leave neat little holes in their victims, or they produce enormous gouging wounds. One of the most unintentionally funny scenes . . . at least I'm presuming this was unintentionally funny . . . takes place during a gunfight where the shooters are so rattled by events they keep repeatedly shooting the same poor bastard who got caught in the crossfire. After about the sixth time I was really feeling sorry for him.)
Jamie Foxx's stock continues to rise, and the title role in this film doesn't look as if it'll hurt his career any. Here he delivers the obligatory righteous anger, laconic attitude and steely-eyed squint which is a prerequisite for a Spaghetti Western hero. While watching the film I was noticing the theater holding its collective breath every time Foxx cocked back the hammer on his pistol, then letting out a murmur of relief on those occasions when he'd refrain from cutting loose with a barrage of ammo (which reminds me: the next time I watch this film I want to pay closer attention to the number of shots made by the six-guns).
As good as Foxx is, though, I must confess that my favorite performance in the film belongs to Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schulz: the dentist/bounty hunter. Possessing an undeniable panache, delivering his lines in a very precise manner, Waltz is one of the best examples of a Tarentino ensemble actor: painted with the same sort of flamboyance found in the characters Chester Gould developed for "Dick Tracy", or the better James Bond villains (say! There's an idea). He is an absolute joy to watch here.
Speaking of James Bond villains: "Django Unchained" becomes the one Leonard DiCaprio performance I've been able to sit through and smile . . .
(Okay, I tell a small fib. I did think DiCaprio performed fairly well in "J. Edgar". But I wasn't smiling.)
As Calvin Candie, the Francophile owner of the plantation "Candyland" where Django's wife is located, DiCaprio becomes one with Dr. No, Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld (all Candyland needed was a rocket base in a hollow volcano, or sharks with frickin' laser beams, and it would've all come home). Poking his head up above the edge without going completely over-the-top or camp . . . equal parts charming and ruthless . . . DiCaprio plays his character as an attractive reptile on a rock, almost managing to outshine Waltz in my estimation (and especially in his scenes with Foxx, when the audience can sense the focus between the two characters, like heat lightning on the horizon).
DiCaprio's performance is also helped by Samuel Jackson as Stephen: the Candyland overseer and chief slave who is one-third Mantan Moreland and two-thirds Svengali. The collaborations between Jackson and Tarentino have always been happy ones for movie fans, and once again the sparks are struck. "Django Unchained" requires Jackson to effortlessly move back and forth from comic relief to sinister behind-the-throne power, and he manages it as easily as you or I could turn a tap on a faucet.
Although perhaps not considered "major" players, I want to mention the two primary female roles in the film. This is the second time Kerry Washington has played Jamie Foxx's wife and, although her dialogue in the film is comparatively minimal, her screen presence immediately draws all eyes to her (when someone gets around to putting black people in Middle Earth I nominate Washington to play an elf). Then there's Laura Cayouette as Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (the widowed sister of DiCaprio's character): the sort of rich wind-up toy which frequented many a story of the antebellum South (if someone told me Cayouette was channeling India Wilkes from "Gone with the Wind" I would've believed it without hesitation).
Earlier I mentioned an unintentionally funny scene (caveat included). "Django Unchained" is filled with all sorts of sources for giggles. A prime one has a vengeful mob of riders (led by Don Johnson) squabbling amongst themselves over the subject of the quality of eye holes in their masks. This bit especially works because it becomes easy to believe that such an argument could come up in this sort of situation. And, in another nod at the temple of Homage, there's a nice bit involving Jamie Foxx and Franco Nero (who played Django in the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film which formed part of the inspiration for Tarentino's production).
If you've seen only one Tarentino film you know his penchant for peppering existing songs into his soundtracks, and his ear for music is surpassed only by his eye for film (he has earned the eternal gratitude of genre fans by being responsible for Al Hirt's "Green Hornet" theme becoming available on CD). The use of the theme from the Corbucci film was a given, but Tarentino also gives listeners the theme to the 1970 film "They Call Me Trinity" (an Uncle Mikey favorite). But Tarentino tops himself (and ups the bar) with the inclusion of Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" (immediately winning the Uncle Mikey 2012 "Big Brass Ones" Award for Excellence in Movie Music As It Relates to Context).
Well, seeing as how I'm running low on superlatives, I hope I've managed to clearly get across the notion that I thought "Django Unchained" was severely neat. I guess one of these days Quentin Tarentino could still do a film which Those Who Think They Matter would consider "serious". But personally, I hope not. He's obviously having too much fun making the sort of films he's known for, and he's found the ingredient for making a lot of people climb on board for the ride. I'm not blind or deaf to the point where I delude myself into thinking that Tarentino's films are universally loved. But Tarentino has never sought universal love. He just wants to entertain on his terms. So far I've found the conditions acceptable (even if I can never again listen to "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealer's Wheel).
As far as "Django Unchained" is concerned, I Enjoyed the Movie!