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The South: two years before the Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers and only Django can lead him to his bounty. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago. Django and Schultz's search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of ‘Candyland,’ an infamous plantation. Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's trusted house slave. (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

 Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino has been dancing around spaghetti westerns for his entire career, endlessly quoting them, reusing their music, and replaying their images. Yet, despite years of hints, he never really got around to making a straight, period-set western. It turns out that Tarantino just wasn’t ready to make a ‘direct line’ spaghetti homage – he needed to get the exploitation catchall Kill Bill movies out of his system first. At the time, these movies seemed like an ultimate extension of the director’s reference-heavy filmmaking style and, taken as a whole, the ultimate Tarantino movie. In hindsight, it was the ultimate version of the Pulp Fiction brand of movie making, but not the ultimate achievement the writer/director was capable of. Following the first time ‘failure’ of Death Proof (failure being a relative word, of course, I happen to enjoy more than Reservoir Dogs, despite its obvious flaws), Tarantino emerged as a more mature filmmaker that was ready to focus harder on the themes of the films he was aping and how to re-contextualize them. He was also more excited to shoot on a limited schedule and more willing to allow a movie to develop organically, rather than sticking stringently to his almighty script. This led him to Inglourious Basterds, which ended up being the best film he ever made and, as it turns out, the beginning of a new chapter in his directing career – a chapter that now includes his first period-set spaghetti western homage, Django Unchained.

Inglourious Basterds was fundamentally a film about the power of film – the heroine burns her Nazi enemies to death during the premier of a propaganda movie using flammable nitrate film. Django Unchained is a companion piece – another historical story that is fundamentally about movies, specifically the power of acting. Schultz discusses this implicitly when he explains his process to Django early in the film (‘During the act, you cannot break character.’). Many of Tarantino’s films already featured characters acting a part – Mr. Orange is undercover in Reservoir Dogs, Butch is hired to throw a fight in Pulp Fiction, Jackie plays multiple parts in Jackie Brown, Beatrix plays dumb when she first meets Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill: Volume 1, and the entirety of ‘Operation Kino’ in Inglourious Basterds hinges on the acting prowess of the various Bastards. But role-playing is also a popular theme throughout the Italian westerns Tarantino is emulating as well, including Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964), Sergio Corbucci’s original Django (1966), and various Hamlet-themed entries, like Johnny Hamlet (aka: Quella Sporca Storia nel West, 1968) and Keoma (1976), both of which were directed by Enzo G. Castellari (who, as it happens, also directed the original Inglorious Bastards, 1978). With this film Tarantino literalizes the common theme, turning Schultz’s advice into a critical reading of the genre.

 Django Unchained
When Django Unchained was first announced there were concerns about a filmmaker as provocative and referential as Tarantino covering a historical subject as incendiary as slavery. Of course, he had already explored a similarly controversial era with Inglourious Basterds and, by most accounts, got away with it through unique satire and the strength of his characters. He was also obviously aware of cinema’s long tradition of using the western genre as a foundation for serious political subject matter. Tarantino’s homage to the genre extends to this subtext, though in a patently a-political manner (he’s never appeared concerned with pressing any real ideology). The westerns of the '60s and '70s in particular were wrought with political tension. European-flavoured westerns began their lives as stylized mimicry of their older Hollywood counterparts, but as the genre flourished, filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, and Damiano Damiani were more than happy to inject socialist doctrines into their seemingly innocuous action movies. This process led to a subset of spaghettis known as the Zapata westerns (named for famed Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata), including Sollima's The Big Gundown (1966), Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (aka: El Chucho, Quién Sabe?, 1966), and Corbucci’s Compañeros (1970). Even Sergio Leone, who openly rejected the political subtext of his contemporaries, found himself contemplating political meaning in his later work, specifically with Duck, You Sucker! (aka: Fistful of Dynamite and Giù la Testa, 1971) – a rollicking comedy that turns into a melancholy meditation on the futility of social ideology. Meanwhile, American directors like Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn ( Little Big Man, 1970), Ralph Nelson ( Soldier Blue, 1970), and Don Medford ( The Hunting Party, 1971) would take an even bleaker look at the American West than the Italians and filled their movies with inconspicuous and hyper-violent Vietnam analogues.

Tarantino’s genius isn’t in finding modern political analogies to apply to the subgenre, it’s that he’s reversing the process to find a way to apply a common subgenre practice to period-specific social concerns. He also connects the popular spaghetti western ‘master and apprentice’ trope to these concepts. Master and apprentice spaghettis began with Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965), where an elder bounty hunter played by Lee Van Cleef competes with the younger Clint Eastwood. The duo begin the film as rivals, but come to depend on each other’s skills as the story becomes complicated. Leone’s film was so popular that Van Cleef often found himself cast as the elder member of other western pairings, usually in a mentor capacity, despite his turn as a villain in the even more popular The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). The best of his ‘mentor westerns’ are Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967, co-starring John Phillip Law) and Tonino Valerii’s Day of Anger (1967, co-starring Giuliano Gemma). The two films feature largely the same plot, were released less than six months apart, and both had a strong influence on Tarantino, specifically Death Rides a Horse, which was one of the main inspirations behind the Kill Bill movies. Van Cleef’s mentor character even had an effect on the Zapata westerns, which, following The Big Gundown, practically required a dual lead, though a direct master and apprentice relationship wasn’t compulsory.

 Django Unchained
Besides the convenient opportunities a literal ‘master and slave’ relationship offered a (re)revisionist spaghetti western like Django Unchained, the sad truth is that slavery in the American South has been largely ignored throughout film history. The mere fact that it contextualizes the period within the constraints of a B-film genre is, unfortunately, innovative. Outside of peripheral stories in Civil War movies, the short list of popular and ‘respected’ Hollywood productions that cover the subject of slavery from the perspective of the slaves is limited to Spielberg’s Amistad, Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, and the landmark television miniseries Roots. The sting of Tarantino doing something so socially progressive is almost immediately cooled by the fact that he’s telling part of his story through the prism of some of the most morally contemptible exploitation films ever made. The ‘slave-sploitation’ subgenre was a short-lived fad, essentially consisting of three super-notorious titles – Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975), Burt Kennedy/Steve Carver’s semi-sequel Drum (1976), and Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi’s Goodbye Uncle Tom (aka: Addio Zio Tom, 1971). All three of these films are also united by the fact that, like the spaghetti westerns, they were produced by Italians. Dino De Laurentiis was working largely within the Hollywood system, but had just relocated to the US in 1976 after both films were created, while Jacopetti & Prosperi (with Paolo Cavara) pioneered the prolific Mondo or shockumentary subgenre that paralleled the spaghetti boom.

Mandingo, despite a surprisingly classy cast and a big budget, is mostly a crushing bore, but Drum, which is generally rejected by even exploitation most aficionados, is a surprisingly entertaining, yet entirely offensive movie. Tarantino himself name-dropped Mandingo as an influence, but everything it shares in common with Django Unchained, it also shares with Drum, specifically the scenes of ‘mandingo fighting’ and those concerning the day-to-day drama on the plantation (including the vaguely incestual relationships of white slave owners). Drum distills Mandingo’s overlong plot to the essentials of bloody mandingo fighting and centers the story more around the slave characters, including Pam Grier as the title character’s love interest and Yaphet Kotto as a revolutionary slave that leads a revolt, murdering the slavers, and burning their mansion to the ground. Goodbye Uncle Tom is much less entertaining, but likely had a visceral influence on Django Unchained. Generally speaking, the Mondo films were entirely visceral experiences and were constantly laced with less than subtle racism in the guise of ‘cultural education.’ Following the relatively tame genre originator, Mondo Cane and its sequel, Mondo Cane 2, Jacopetti & Prosperi painted a particularly slanderous portrait of the Dark Continent with Africa Addio (aka: Africa Blood and Guts. Bereft of enough sensationalist footage, the directors reportedly staged atrocities, including executions that landed Jacopetti in court on suspicion of murder. Since it was difficult to top (accused) murder Jacopetti & Prosperi glommed on to the geek show popularity of Africa Addio’s racism and made Goodbye Uncle Tom, which saw them (legally) reenacting the atrocities of American slavery. It would be an easy movie to dismiss outright, had it not been so well made.

 Django Unchained
Less shocking than the slavesploitation films are a small series of ‘70s westerns starring black leads, many of which are cobbled under the blaxsploitation subheading. Like many of the movies listed as ‘black-exploitation,’ several black westerns were written and/or directed by black actors that wanted to play heroic roles traditionally filled by whites, including Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972), Fred Williamson’s Adiós Amigo (1975), and Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993). Key entries in the subgenre include a trilogy of films starring Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charlie (directed by Martin Goldman, 1972), The Soul of Nigger Charley (directed by Larry Spangler, 1973), and the most famous film in the series, Boss Nigger (directed by Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mouse that Roared director Jack Arnold and produced/written by Williamson himself, 1974). Boss Nigger, in particular, had explicit influence on Django Unchained. The story follows Williamson and D'Urville Martin as two black bounty hunters (‘Y’all been hunting black folks for so long, we wanted to know what it was like to hunt white folks’) that are hired as sheriff and deputy of a border town run by corrupt white criminals. Besides borrowing general ideas, Tarantino also replays a scene from Boss Nigger at the beginning of Django Unchained where Williamson and Martin ride into town to the slack-jawed shock of all the citizens. The blaxsploitation genre hit its stride around the time the spaghetti westerns were dwindling, so there was some inevitable over-lap, specifically the all-star-studded Take a Hard Ride (1975), which features Williamson (naturally), Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, and Jim Kelly, and was directed by Tarantino favourite Antonio Margheriti.

Racial complications are inherent in the subject matter, but Django Unchained’s weak female characterizations do spell trouble. Westerns have always been a male-centric genre – a place where man can go to watch men do manly things with other men (which is part of the reason why Brokeback Mountain is such a brilliant inversion of genre types) – and the spaghettis were especially attuned to masculine audiences. The only two strong roles for women throughout the better genre films were Once Upon a Time in the West’s Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) and The Great Silence’s Pauline (Vonetta McGee). In addition, Tarantino interprets his hero’s journey as a fairytale where Broomhilda is cast as Django’s ‘reward’ for his achievements. This framework would seem to justify Tarantino’s choice to make his heroine a damsel in distress, but doesn’t take into account almost every single other film in his oeuvre. Not only does he thrive on changing the context of the films he pays homage to, but the majority of his films are based around incredibly strong, proactive female protagonists. We also know that Tarantino is a pretty big fan of Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder, which is another Kill Bill prototype as well as another master and apprentice, revenge western (Robert Culp trains Raquel Welch how to use a gun, so that she can shoot down the men that killed her husband and raped her). Broomhilda’s passive place in Django’s story (a story in which Django himself has a relatively passive role for about half the film) doesn’t only seem kind of insulting, it feels entirely out of place in a post- Pulp Fiction Tarantino film.

 Django Unchained
Another common criticism levied at Django Unchained surrounds the film’s violence. Every Tarantino movie is criticized for violent content, but it seemed that the moral outrage had cooled over the years. I imagine that the cartoony excess of the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof made the violence easier to swallow and the WWII setting allowed a certain amount of leeway for Inglourious Basterds’ cinematic brutality. I have to assume that some of the offense taken to the gory shootouts here was an extension of the offense taken to the use of the n-word (some critics express annoyance at the film's ‘racial violence’) and, more obviously, people were reacting to the Sandy Hook tragedy, which occurred just before the film was released. But I also wonder if something as simple as the abnormal colour and constancy of the film’s stage blood played a roll in the audience’s disgust. The bullet hits are especially goopy and slightly orangish, kind of like tomato soup. I presume there’s a specific significance to tomato soup blood, because everything in a Tarantino film is significant, but I can’t quite place it in the context of the majority of the films he references throughout the film. Perhaps it is in reference to the weird colour and consistency of stage blood throughout ‘60s and ‘70s films in general, but if that was the case, the blood should really be more pink and less ‘chunky,’ like the stuff Tom Savini used for Dawn of the Dead (by the way, Savani has a cameo here as one of the trackers).

Spaghetti westerns were notoriously violent, but most of the ‘shocking’ content revolved around more intimate acts of aggression, like people being fed their own ears ( Django), pretty-boys being gang-raped off screen ( Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot!), and scenes of prolonged physical torture (too many films to mention). The actual shootings in these films are usually quick and relatively bloodless affairs. Gooey squibs weren’t really a ‘thing’ until Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch in 1969 – a few years after the rough and tumble spaghettis had already run their course and turned into more spectacular and comedic movies, like Once Upon a Time in the West and the Trinity series. So, Peckinpah, not Leone or Corbucci, seems the obvious inspiration for the scenes of Django taking care of business in Candyland, but the aural cues that follow these big shoot-outs point directly to Walter Hill’s one ‘pure’ western, The Long Riders. In both films, a reverse ricochet effect can be heard preceding the gory impact.

 Django Unchained
Technical beauty, wonderful performances, and clever use of film history aside, Django Unchained has obvious problems with editing. The pacing is well-regulated and quick, making for a typically breezy viewing experience, but the structure is lacking, leading me to assume that the film would’ve benefited from a longer cut. During interviews, Tarantino said that Harvey Weinstein had approached him about the possibility of splitting his mammoth screenplay into two movies, ala Kill Bill. In the end, he decided that this particular story required a single-sitting resolution, but admitted that much of the original script was cut during production (for instance, we know that scenes with Candie’s trackers was cut from the script before filming). The editing complications could be blamed on the film’s occasionally troubled production period (actors coming and going, for instance), but Tarantino was also bereft of Sally Menke, the genius editor that held his hand through every single one of his previous films. When Menke died unexpectedly in 2010, Tarantino was forced to begin a new filmmaking relationship with Fred Raskin, who served as assistant editor on the Kill Bill films.
 
The final act (which is something of a fourth act, following an incomplete third act) seems to suffer the most obvious cuts, but I don’t think this break in momentum was entirely unintended. I understand how it might feel ‘off’ to general audiences, but spaghetti western tradition dictates that the hero has to fail before he succeeds and, quite often, he needs to be tortured a little first. This tradition is often credited to Fistful of Dollars, but really extends all the way back into the Italian filmmakers’ Catholic roots. Spaghetti westerns are constantly turning their heroes into Jesus, though only for the ‘passion play’ part of the story. The analogy was originally left to the audience’s imaginations (the original Django’s hands are trampled into stigmatic pulps), but soon the subtext turned literal as antihero cowboys were crucified. For the record, the seemingly invincible Fred Williamson is also captured by his enemies in Boss Nigger, then is shot through the hand and tied to a post, where he is left to rot. Tarantino’s Django is crucified in his own way (upside-down, not on a literal crucifix) and forced to rise again against the bad guys, without the assistance of his mentor, Dr. Schultz. This is all in keeping with the traditions the director is quoting; the problem that arises is that his vengeance feels truncated and rushed in a manner that doesn’t quite match the rhythms of the rest of the film. What makes sense for the homage doesn’t necessarily make sense for the film, which has become its own entity by the two-hour mark.

 Django Unchained

Video


Tarantino continues his not so quiet crusade for traditional film stock over digital photography and this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is a fine example of how well the Blu-ray format can reproduce the analogue look. Robert Richardson’s Academy Award-nominated cinematography is gorgeous and arresting, though he treats the material with less overt stylization than he practiced on the Kill Bill movies or even Inglourious Basterds. Django Unchained is, generally speaking, a more ‘rustic’ looking film, perhaps in an effort to avoid competing with the unbridled beauty of Roger Deakins’ western-set efforts on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and True Grit. Overall detail levels depend on camera placement and focus. The big, frame-filling facial close-ups are overflowing with nooks and crannies and the more expansive shots feature plenty of complex lines and textures. The images are crisp, even the lens flares, without any major sharpening effects or blocking effects. The 35mm grain pops up more readily in the more low-lit sequences, but digital compression noise is not a problem.

The overall palette is pretty consistent, unlike the multimedia Kill Bill films, though the occasional flashbacks are super-saturated and super-high contrast (the heavier grain also leads me to believe that these scenes were shot in 16mm). The palette is then divided between location types. The small towns Django and Schultz visit and the desert spots they spend the night in are largely brown with warm orange highlights. The wintery outdoor scenes are cool and blue with sharp hue separation between the backgrounds and flesh tones. The plantations are more vibrant and eclectic with brighter whites (some of which blow out a tad), harsher blacks, and lush greens. The general consistency of the palette allows for some delightfully poppy elements, like Django’s ridiculous Little Boy Blue costume and the flowers along the backgrounds of some of the plantation sets. Some of the darkest nighttime sequences, such as the first dialogue scene, are dark enough that detail is minimized, but this is, I believe, exactly Tarantino’s intention. And, even at its darkest, the details necessary to maintain the film’s gritty, hyper-realistic look are plenty clear. Having been shot on 35mm and undergoing minimal digital colour corrections means that black levels occasionally suffer inconsistencies. The darker brown hues tend to disappear into the background blacks as well, but, again, these are all imperfections that define the analogue format and endear it to top filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino.

 Django Unchained

Audio


Anchor Bay and the Weinstein Company have given this disc a definitively strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 treatment, though the sound design (and Oscar-nominated sound editing) is often delicate enough that some viewers may find themselves cranking their sound systems up to dangerous volume levels. Be warned (or perhaps reminded) that Django Unchained, like many Tarantino movies, features extreme dynamic ranges. This track comes to life most brightly during the musical sequences (more on those in a tic), the super punchy shoot-outs, the LFE rumbling horse hooves during the KKK raid (followed by the film’s first big explosion), and any scene where a whip is employed. I’m sure that at some point in production Tarantino was tempted to use a variation of the thin and tinny gunshot sound that pervade so many spaghetti westerns, but he ended up opting for an extremely bassy and destructive gun noise that would give Dirty Harry pause. During the most stylized of the film’s shoot-outs, the booming guns are sometimes dwarfed by the gooey glops of the bloody squib hits. This use of echo and reversing effects extend to other slow-motion scenes of violence, like the brutal dog attack, which actually works the surround channels even more than the shoot-outs. Occasionally, during an outdoor shot the elements (usually wind( interfere with the clarity of a dialogue-heavy sequence, though this is a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of performance.

As a nearly obsessive connoisseur of spaghetti western film music, I was especially keen on hearing what Django Unchained had to offer in terms of sourced catalogue music. Tarantino had already used so many of Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone’s most celebrated spaghetti themes for Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, so I was curious as to what gems he’d conjure. There are no ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fires)’ level surprises, but the soundtrack makes great use of blending less likely western cues with soul and modern hip-hop. Some of the music, such as Bacalov’s opening title song from the original Django, has been a bit over-modulated for the sake of a 5.1 arena, causing some minor issues with echoing effects and warbling bass, but this is merely a nitpick – there’s only so much one can do to ‘modernize’ tracks this old. For the most part, this is the best most of these songs have ever sounded, especially the more ambient and delicately instrumented bits, like Morricone’s ‘The Braying Mule’ from Two Mules for Sister Sara and Riz Ortolani’s ‘Days of Anger’ from Day of Anger (which Tarantino had already used part of for Kill Bill: Volume 2. One thing I hadn’t notice when I saw the film in theaters that is that a music box version of the Django theme that plays as Franco Nero, the original Django, walks up to ask Jamie Foxx his character’s name (‘The D is silent’…’I know.’).

 Django Unchained

Extras


Not surprisingly, the extras here are brief and largely devoted to recognizing the hard work the crew put in to the film, rather than its meaning or influences. Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained (12:50, HD) covers the late designer’s work on the film, including set and prop construction, location scouting, costume design, and the choices made concerning reality vs. style. Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses and Stunts of Django Unchained (13:50, HD) sees Tarantino and his stunt crew discussing the safety precautions they took in order to keep the film’s horses safe during filming and the effort in training actors to ride horses and shoot guns. The Costume Design of Sharen Davis (12:00, HD) speaks for itself, I suppose. The featurettes include cast and crew interviews with Tarantino, producers Pilar Savone, Stacey Sher, and Reginald Hudlin, prop master Hope Parrish, art department head David Klassen, set decorator Leslie Pope, costume designer Sharen Davis, stunt coordinators Jeff and Nick Dashnaw, stunt man Freddie Hice, boss wrangler Rusty Hendrickson, special effects supervisor Jeff McLeod, quick-draw trainer Thell Reed, actors Jamie Foxx, Walter Goggins, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson, and Christoph Waltz, and J. Micheal Riva himself, who died before production finished.

The extras end with a promo for the Tarantino XX Blu-ray collection and the Django Unchained soundtrack.

 Django Unchained

Overall


Django Unchained doesn’t quite rise to the perfection Tarantino achieved his last time in theaters, but its major shortcoming is that there isn’t enough of it – a problem I wish I had with more movies. Apparently, we aren’t going to see an extended cut anytime soon, or probably ever, so this Blu-ray release will have to do. The image and sound qualities are top notch and the extras are expectedly brief. I hope I didn’t ramble on too long and that I’ve inspired some of the Django Unchained’s fans to further explore the wonderful world of European-made westerns.

 Django Unchained

 Django Unchained

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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