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On Movies: Tarantino is at his best in 'Django Unchained'

In Movies / TV

12:46 pm on Mon, 12.24.12

Quentin Tarantino is amazing. He can take on the most serious and sensitive topics possible, like the Holocaust and slavery in America, horrific crimes against humanity. And he can make popular movies about them, movies that are hugely entertaining and never preachy.

At his best -- and the brilliant new spaghetti-style Western "Django Unchained" is one of Tarantino's best -- his movies are audacious, viscerally exciting, emotionally jarring, visually and intellectually stimulating, and funny. Sometimes very funny, like the scene in "Django Unchained" in which a gang of fully sheeted Ku Klux Klan nightriders on the verge of an attack pause to complain snippily and at length about the cut and fit of their hoods.

Among other things, "Django Unchained" is a revenge drama, and Tarantino inflicts pain on evildoers, both black and white, in a variety of ways, including ridicule. Often, of course, he just blows their bloody heads off.

Jamie Foxx, as magnetic this time as he was in "Ray," stars as Django, a brutalized but still proud slave who is freed by a bounty hunter for his own mercenary reasons. The bounty hunter, named Dr. Schultz, is played with gusto by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a way-too-clever SS officer in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."

Schultz wanders the West gunning down wanted men for profit. We quickly learn that he is from Germany. Presumably Tarantino wanted Waltz for the role and needed an easy explanation for his bounty hunter's "The Most Interesting Man in the World" accent.

After Django is freed and helps Schultz track down and dispatch a couple of nasty brothers who specialize in mistreating slaves, Schultz offers Django a junior partnership in his bounty business. They warm up with a few bloody encounters with wanted criminals, and with such stellar supporting actors as Don Johnson and Bruce Dern, and then head South to a plantation called "Candyland."

That's where Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is being held in slavery. The two hatch a scheme to free Broomhilda and swindle the master of the plantation, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) out of bundles of dough.

At Candyland, we meet an outrageously evil house slave named Stephen, who actually runs the plantation while sarcastically genuflecting to his mentally dim master, Candie. It takes you a minute or two of staring at Stephen, his severely receding hairline seeming to double the size of his face, before you spot Samuel L. Jackson beneath the greasepaint, and after you spot him you can't take your eyes off of him.

Jackson gives a  priceless performance, the glint in his eyes shifting jackrabbit quick from phony subservience to a baleful lust for power, from ersatz humility to deep contempt for all races and genders. His face is like a mask, a mask of malice.

Without a hint of the condescension we so often get in "ironic" films by younger directors, Tarantino simultaneously spoofs genre flicks and uses the genre to tell a powerful and honest story with a strong message, a message that never overwhelms the narrative. Tarantino loves spaghetti westerns, and blaxploitation flicks, and horror movies, and cut-rate film noir. What he creates, when he really gets rolling, is irresistible pop art, self-referential but not cynical, ironic but never cute.  

The man can make you nervous -- indeed, making the audience nervous is one of his dramatic devices. He is the opposite of politically correct. In "Django Unchained," he outdoes himself in the use of the "N" word, although you would be hard put to find a place in the film where it doesn't fit into the mouth of the character who speaks it.

And the character of Stephen could be considered a racist construct, if he weren't so humanly believable as he sells out his people and confounds Whitey and if he weren't played by such a gifted actor as Jackson. Stephen is clearly smarter than any of the white people who consider themselves superior to him, smarter and more capable in every way. And, bless Tarantino, Stephen meets an end in Candyland that is commensurate with his monstrous, satanic malevolence.

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