Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Django Unchained; too much action in the way of the talky bits

I'm sure that if the blogosphere finds out you're talking about movies at all without having seen all of Tarantino's movies, they send a man round to duff you up. Or talk about how someone ought to send a man round to duff you up anyhow. There's something vaguely indispensable about the latest Tarantino, which means it's just as well they're three years apart or I'd never get time for anything else.

Django Unchained is a breathtaking, bladder-challenging 165 minutes long. Imagine what it's going to be like if Tarantino decides on a director's cut for the DVD release. The disc might wind up being too big to go in the player. You'd have to buy a special player just for Tarantino movies - at least it would be that way at first. Then Cameron and Jackson would pile in with even bigger discs before finally Ridley Scott would fetch up with a wheelbarrow for the extended super director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven. 

Curiously, the time doesn't hang heavy. Django isn't the kind of lyrical movie you lose yourself in; it's not the second coming of The Unbearable Lightness of Being or anything even close to it. But in Christoph Waltz, Tarantino has finally found his true muse. Tarantino writes magnificent, daffy, infinitely mannered dialogue; every sentence dripping with the wit and spontaneity which only hindsight or days of rehearsal can give any of us in real life. It's all the stuff you wish you could think of, delivered quicker than you could ever think of it, without a pause or a stumble. It's funny as hell when it works, but until Waltz showed up in Inglourious Basterds, you could never quite bring yourself to believe that the characters were naturally so eloquent. Waltz somehow seems just that smart. Somehow, Col. Landa and Dr King Schultz seem utterly credible in their mannered world weariness, speaking in whole paragraphs with every word in just the place and tone it needs to be. We've all had moments when we felt so poised - most of us have subsequently sobered up and winced to recall them - but Waltz always convinces as a man who simply lives his life in that moment, conscious that it's a gift but not especially impressed by himself.

As a result, just about every scene with Waltz in it is a pure joy, and every time we cut away from him talking to kill someone or blow someone up, it's a jolt out of something pleasant and comfortable. I suspect that this time around, that was what Tarantino wanted.

Django is all about how slavery is a bad thing. This wasn't, to my way of thinking, a point which anyone was still confused about. Then again, I wasn't sure that there were that many people out there trying to figure out whether Nazis were worth making a fuss about and Tarantino still went ahead and made Inglourious Basterds, a war movie which was less about war than the importance of hating Nazis as a lifestyle choice. I can't wait to see what super-obvious enemy he goes after three years from now. Although slavery is a bad thing, slaves themselves are largely an interchangeable commodity in the movie. Noticeably so in the credits, which put up in lights all the white folks what needed a might big dose of killing over the course of the preceding three hours, but didn't squeeze in the slaves at all. A whole bunch of slave trackers (including non-actress but Tarantino favourite Zoe Bell) with about six lines between them got more space in the credits than anyone they tracked. Again, Tarantino may have done this on purpose. He's at such pains to layer his references and insert his in-jokes that it's hard to believe he'd miss out on the way the wronged people of his movie were shoved off to one side.

Of course, some of this is just the irresistible attraction of villainy. Villains are always more fun than heroes, and how we do love to watch them strut and posture, the better to be brought low by the righteous before the credits roll. And Tarantino ratchets his villains up for all the world like a video game; first Schultz breaks Django loose from two slavers, who aren't that bright and have to die. Then Schultz and Django nobble three slave overseers, who are both dumb and cruel and have to die, though there's a tantalising piece of lunacy in M.C. Gainey's whip wielding overseer with pages of the Bible randomly stitched to his clothes. "Why?" I thought to myself. Maybe it's in the director's cut, but on balance I'm probably getting more fun out of wondering about it than I would have from any explanation Tarantino actually gave me. Naturally the Brittle Brothers' appalling boss (Don Johnson in yet another idiot villain cameo for Tarantino/and/or/Rodriguez; how bored can the man BE?) summons the proto KKK to descend on our heroes, who explode them all, though not before they have spent what felt like eternity making utter fools of themselves over the bags on their heads. And then it is time for the big endgame boss, in the shape of grade-A monster Leonardo Di Caprio's Monsieur Candie.

It's safe to say that Rose wouldn't recognise her handsome Jack, not least because like all Hollywood villains of the 19th century, he has teeth that seem to have been discarded from a comedy about how terrible British dentistry is. Candie is appalling. Actually, anyone running a plantation would be pretty appalling, but just in case we'd be havering a bit, he gets his slaves to fight each other to the death and bets on the outcomes. Still not quite enough to make your mind up? Tarantino has it covered; Candie happens upon an escaped slave - as you do - on the way back to his plantation and has him torn apart by dogs. So, yeah, complete bastard. Box ticked, move on.

The whole back half of the movie is a Mission Impossible style stunt as Schultz and Django try to bamboozle Candie into selling them Django's wife by setting up a deal so big that he'll throw the wife in as a makeweight without even noticing it. Considering that Candie is - remind me again - oh yeah, a complete bastard who loves money, it seemed to me like making him a suitably impressive offer in gold through his lawyer would have done the same job, but then we'd have missed out on something which Tarantino does well even when he's doing it badly; the long slow talky scene in which you're waiting for the moment in which the good guys make a terrible slip and the bad guys do something appalling. See the basement bar scene in Inglourious Basterds. Even though it's a preposterous waste of time which does nothing to advance the action or add to our understanding of characters (not least because only one person in the scene gets out of it alive), viewed in isolation, it's a great scene and a real nail biter, right up to the moment when it turns into a confused bloodbath.

I am not saying anything unexpected when I say that the tense confrontation in Maison Candie ends up in a confused bloodbath, because confused bloodbaths are pretty much how Tarantino solves every problem. Conversation's gone on past the endurance of all but the most prepared bladder? Every single reference I could shoe-horn into the script duly thrown at the screen? Check and Check. What was that other thing I had to do? Oh, yeah. Ending. Damnit, I never know how to do this bit. Endings. None of this stuff is actually going anywhere. All my characters seem smart enough to reach a compromise. Where's the fun in that? Oh well, guess it's just gonna have to be a bloodbath again. Oh, wait, did i get in my obligatory awkward cameo? No? quick, tack a second ending on after the first one. Throw another bloodbath into that, then goof around a bit and riff on old movie references. Get a horse to dance; audiences love that, or they would if anyone had done it since the invention of colour film. And roll the credits. Dick around a bit there as well.

In short, the destination's a mess, but the journey is frequently worth it. Waltz is magnificent. I almost don't want to see him in anything else BUT Tarantino movies in case he's only this good when he's got a script so well tailored. Jamie Foxx is still doing that thing where he's Denzel Washington in carbonite and the carbonite hasn't even thawed out yet. Samuel L Jackson is almost unrecognisable as Candie's black major domo and effective brain, but he really sells the idea of a man who sold out his own people so as to have a life of comparative comfort. And saving the best for last, at least in these parts, it's got Walton Goggins in it, as natural law commands that everything in the south should. He doesn't get anything like enough to do, but when you absolutely positively have to have a hill-billy come in and try to cut off Django's goolies with a red hot knife, who ELSE would you call?

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