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Film Review: Django Unchained - A Question of Entertainment vs Enlightenment

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Quentin Tarantino has never really played by the rules during his career in film making. From his early films, which have since become modern classics such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, to his recent work such as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, even Death Proof. Tarantino has proved he's not afraid to take risks, or push the boundaries when demonstrating his artistry. In Django Unchained, Tarantino has undeniable created a vehicle to indulge in wild fantasy to such an excess, that he may need a stint in rehab to recover.

Django Unchained is a re-imagining of Sergio Corbucci's popular 1966 spaghetti western revenge film Django, which starred Franco Nero in the titular role. Keeping in line with the director's unorthodox style, Django Unchained attempts to combine the ambiance and style of a classic spaghetti western, with the delicate topic of slavery in the Deep South just before the Civil War. Tarantino essentially rips to shreds all history books on slavery and decides to tell a somewhat more whimsical tale.

We find Dr King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), an open-minded, well-educated German bounty hunter, who skilfully takes down a number of chain gang leaders in order to rescue a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx). Even though the good Dr doesn't participate in slavery, he does have an ulterior motive for temporarily liberating Django, because the slave has the ability to identify the notorious Brittle Brothers, who will provide Dr Schultz with a considerable reward once captured. So the two enter into an agreement; Django will help Scultz to capture the wanted men in exchange for his liberation. The story further develops when Django reveals that his wife Broomhilda, whom speaks the Dr's native language of German, was also captured and sold to separate master. After Schultz explains the German fable behind the name Broomhilda (which involves the damsel being rescued by a saviour), Schultz decides to help Django rescue his beloved wife, now feeling somewhat responsible for Django's new found freedom

When Tarantino makes a film, he doesn't cut any corners and from the outset Django Unchained really does feel like a classic spaghetti western film. The opening credit even uses an old version of the Columbia Pictures logo just to add to the effect. Django Unchained is everything you would expect from Tarantino. The film is as stylish as ever, with elaborate and beautiful costumes designs, fantastic cinematography that really capture the beautiful landscape of Django and Dr Schultz journey. There are quite a few old school zoom close ups of characters as they are introduced on screen, which are all great touches.

As with all Tarantino films, Django Unchained boasts a superb cast. Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Dr Shultz. The actor effortlessly delivers such a charming performance as the rambling, gun totting bounty hunter and you can't help but warm to his mannerisms and quirks. Jamie Foxx is solid as Django and the chemistry between Foxx and Waltz is believable. The bond that develops between the two unlikely companions is very touching. The relationship could even be likened to a father/son type bond, with the bounty hunter imparting his knowledge of gun-fighting to the slave, even teaching him how to read and expand his vocabulary. Whist Foxx's performance is good, it's a much understated role and perhaps that was intentional by Tarantino bearing in mind the fact that Django is a slave. It's only during the latter part of the film that Django really comes into his own. Foxx is almost overshadowed by the various over the top performances from his fellow cast members. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed) plays slave owner Calvin Candie with much exuberance, indulging in Mandingo fighting; where slaves are pitting against each other in a fight to the death. The actor seems to relish playing such a loathsome character and succeeds in delivering a performance that portrays a truly despicable man. The award for the most surprising character must go to Samuel L Jackson (Snakes on a Plane) who plays a very much unexpected role and all credit must be given to Tarantino for the direction he took with that particular character and Jackson for delivering such a powerful performance.

Django Unchained has all of the trademarks of a true Tarantino film; the violence is brutal and uncompromising. There are some great stylish action sequences all set to a pulsating eclectic soundtrack, which again in true Tarantino style has everything from hip hop to Wild West classics. There are cute prolonged dialogues, funny anecdotes, everything you have come to expect from a Tarantino film is in Django Unchained, so if you are a fan of the director, you will no doubt be impressed with this fantasy tale.

However, Django Unchained is somewhat of a dichotomy, because for all the things that make this film entertaining; the action, comedy, fun, fantasy... these are all the same reasons that make Django Unchained uncomfortable viewing. This film is essentially about one of the darkest periods in the history of mankind and the film is far too jovial and entertaining to be a film about Slavery; a gruesome, brutal, disgusting time in history. Whilst audiences eat their popcorn and marvel at the director's cute use of dialogue, enjoy the comedic one-liners and slow-mo action scenes with Rick Ross music blasting in the background. Will they really walk away with a genuine insight into slavery? Of course not. Audiences may leave entertained to a certain degree, but at what cost? Tarantino is a visionary director, but as to whether this film comes close to resembling anything like a genuine slavery story - that's debatable. Yes, there are graphic scenes depicting the brutality that slaves endured, but graphic brutality is a given in any Tarantino film and isn't unique to Django Unchained.

Whilst one may be of the opinion that Django Unchained is supposed to be a story of fiction, the fact that Tarantino has chosen to make light of such a serious subject is where this film falters. There are a number of scenes that are intended to bring entertainment but instead come across as highly inappropriate. I find it hard to laugh at a bumbling group of KKK clan members who are about to embark on killing a person simply because of the colour of their skin, but get sidetracked into arguing over the fact that they can't see through the holes in the white sheets they have placed over their heads. This odd scene, which featured an equally as odd cameo from Jonah Hill (Superbad), came across as unfunny and awkward, and could of quite easily fitted into an episode of The Office.

Django Unchained is technically a good film and contains all the key ingredients that you would expect from Quentin Tarantino, so in that respect he has succeeded in making an entertaining film. However if you look at this film morally and ethically, I would have say Django Unchained simply left a bad taste in my mouth. If this film was simply a spaghetti western revenge film and the Slavery backdrop was non-existent, then I would be hailing Django Unchained as another Tarantino classic. However whilst this western, slavery, fantasy adventure film has all the hallmarks of a Tarantino classic, unfortunately the director didn't take enough time to consider the gravity in trying to re-write the history of slavery for entertainment purposes. Whilst Django Unchained is a wildly fanciful and unique concept, it should have perhaps stayed within the realms of Tarantino's vivid imagination.