Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tarantino unchains the power of great characters.

Quentin Tarantino makes violent films. When a bullet hits a body part it doesn't dribble with blood, it explodes under pressure. Unnecessary gore for sensationalism? No, rock solid storytelling.

Take a little time to see into the filmmaking and you'll begin to see that Tarantino's exaggerated violence preps his canvas for telling fantastic tales. The heightened violence serving as a tool to remind your subconscious that your watching a movie while you consciously, and eagerly, journey into the screen with Tarantino's amazing characters.

I doubt I could have accepted the extremes of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained, shot any other way. And that thought, I realized, runs back through films like Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, all the way to Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino's characters are so deliberate, so unapologetic and written into such extreme situations, that their world must be pushed, like saturating the color palette of film stock, to provide continuity to their story. The blend of putting extreme characters against a background of exaggerated violence acts to create a baseline for the story's reality that seems perfectly natural.

If it's the taught stretching of the background canvas that allows it, it's a masterwork of invention that creates the characters that sell it. Django Unchained is filled, edge to blood splattered edge, with brilliant characters.

Christoph Waltz as King Shultz and Jamie Foxx as Django

Django squares off with
 Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie
The lead characters, good guys and bad guys, though their actions make those delineations blur, are literally (as in its Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated screenplay), surrounded with supporting characters so well written that many only require moments on screen to embed themselves into the story. Django, King Schultz and Calvin Candie, played respectively by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are written and directed to perfection, delivering a trio of unforgettable performances. And in the case of Christoph Watlz, winning this year's Golden Globe for Supporting Actor as well as an Oscar nomination.

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen
with Kerri Washington as Broomhilda
But there are also a script full of superlative characters and compelling performances in every segment and set piece of the film.  Samuel L. Jackson nearly startles as the house slave Stephen. Star turns continue with Don Johnson as the racist plantation owner Big Daddy, Walton Goggins as the vengeful plantation hired hand Billy Crash, Ato Essandoh in a brief but wrenching turn as runaway slave D'Artagnan, even Tarantino's cameo establishes a memorable character (with a signature and memorable demise).

Don Johnson as Big Daddy
Then there's the sense of fun that Mr. Tarantino brings to filmmaking that is so unabashedly and resoundingly rooted in his own favorite film genres as to further defuse any sense of outrage at his gleeful desire to shock. In just the opening titles, music, title fonts and camera movements evoke not just what's ahead, but what lies well behind. An immediate, respectful and joyous bow to those films that have influenced and inspired the director's work.

It's there in the soundtrack which ranges from spaghetti western homage to hip hop, with Jim Croce's I Got A Name thrown, somehow perfectly, into the mix. It's there too in casting, from a cameo and credited tribute to Franco Nero (the original Django from the 1966 classic spaghetti western), to a virtual parade of wonderful character appearances by the likes of Tom Wopat, Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Robert Carradine, Ted Neely, Michael Parks and a host of other famous names and faces. You'll have to look close to know they're there, but you only need to watch the movie to appreciate why they're there.

Quentin Tarantino, in character.
Django Unchained should absolutely be on your list of movies to see before the Academy Awards on February 24th. But as an example of stellar screenwriting and wonderfully informed casting and directing, this is a film to own in a collection. A film to be studied and appreciated as Quentin Tarantino builds toward a catalog of masterworks. Django Unchained is a movie to be enjoyed for the sheer fun of watching.

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