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Movie Review: “Django Unchained”

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“Django Unchained” continues Quentin Tarantino’s usual tendency of combining two or three of his favorite genres into one movie: It’s a spaghetti Western combined with an antebellum slave drama, with a touch of blaxploitation thrown in as well.

There’s a lot of really great stuff in it, including four or five legitimately great cinematic moments, and across-the-board strong performances from a top-notch cast. But unfortunately ‘Django’ falls back on some of the Tarantino’s less fortunate directorial tics, namely too-slow pacing, dialogue sequences that drag on endlessly and the general sense that the movie should have been about an hour shorter.

Indeed, ‘Django’ has enough great material for about 90 minutes. But it’s running time is 165 minutes. It’s a lot like Tarantino’s previous film, “Inglorious Basterds,” which had a handful of great moments interspersed with a whole lot of boredom.

Set in the years before the civil war, ‘Django’ tells the story of the titular slave (Jamie Foxx), who is freed in the film’s first scene by the German-Jewish dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who initiates Django into the bounty hunting game.

The two do battle with various slavers and other bad guys, ultimately confronting plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio while attempting to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington.)

The film’s look and production design, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography are outstanding, and the production made excellent use of Louisiana locations. The film also continues Tarantino’s tradition of fine musical choices, although its use of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” is anachronistic by about 100 years.

The three leading actors are all outstanding, with Foxx putting on a new spin on the archetype of the Western hero, Waltz a delight from beginning to end, and DiCaprio outstanding in a rare turn as a villain. Continuing Tarantino’s career-long hobby of grabbing actors off the scrap heap, the supporting cast is filled with names like Don Johnson, James Remar, Dennis Christopher, Tom Wopat and even Bruce Dern.

There’s one more amazing supporting performance, from QT regular Samuel L. Jackson, giving a very disturbing turn as DiCapiro’s house slave.

So what’s the problem? It’s all in the pacing. The movie slows to a crawl for long stretches, and could have used a whole lot of tightening. Then there’s the third act- ‘Django’ has a perfectly fine ending, and then goes ahead and has four more of them.

As for the film’s “controversial” subject matter, there’s some disturbing, historically loaded stuff here, but I didn’t find it especially offensive, since it clearly has its heart in the right place and is on the right side of everything.

If anyone complains that the story of a former slave taking up arms against those who enslaved him and his wife is “reverse racism,” it says a whole lot more about them than about the film. As for those complaining about overuse of the n-bomb, I have no use for those who believe the biggest racial double standard in America is that black people are allowed to use the n-word and whites aren’t.

Quentin Tarantino, more than any other director, is the reason that I got into film. “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” were among formative filmgoing experiences for myself and a whole lot of film buffs of my generation. He’s still cranking out stellar films, but I don’t think I’m alone in wishing he’d make something truly transcendent again.

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