Film Review: Django Unchained

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Thursday 31st January 2013.

There are very few filmmakers on my must-see list. Regardless of the stars or story, I will be first in line to see anything from Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi and Steven Spielberg. The other director on my list is one Quentin Tarantino and so it was with high expectations that I wandered into my local megaplex to experience Django Unchained.

Slavery seems to be the theme du jour in Hollywood. In a few weeks we’ll have Daniel Day Lewis impersonating a statue in Spielberg’s Lincoln but first up is QT’s exploration of revenge set four years before the Civil War.

Jamie Foxx plays the titular character, freed from slavery by bounty hunter and former dentist Dr King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). Initially a commercial arrangement in order to track down a trio of criminals, their relationship grows and soon they are working together to locate Django’s lost wife, Broomhilda, now a slave for Leonardo DiCaprio’s nefarious cotton plantation owner, Calvin Candie.

What follows is a highly enjoyable romp that, similar to QT’s previous film Inglourious Basterds, suffers from an identity crisis. The film opens with a vintage Columbia Film logo, which echoes Tarantino’s previous fixation on blaxploitation cinema. After all, Django’s surname is “Von Shaft”. Following that comes the modern Weinstein Company logo, immediately jarring you back to present day.

The film itself carries on with this thematic mishmash, with no element sitting comfortably with the other. There’s broad comedy, followed by explicit gun violence. We have historically accurate depictions of slavery and punishment alongside fictional mandingo fighting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be a little bit uncomfortable, possibly all at the same time.

Broadly speaking, Django Unchained is a southern (not a western) and will sit alongside Inglourious Basterds in the Historical Fantasy shelf when it finally hits your local video store.

Much has been made in the media about the recurrent use of the n word but in the context of the film, it’s appropriate. Spike Lee has publically denounced the film for overusing the offensive word, and has refused to see it. I was much more offended by the gratuitous cameo at the end of the movie which almost sinks the whole affair.

The performances from the three leads are solid, although Waltz seems to be treading water with yet another eloquent and intelligent European character. Samuel L. Jackson provides plenty of menace as Stephen, the loyal house slave at Candieland Ranch. However, Kerry Washington as Broomhilda has little else to do but stand around.

Like all Tarantino ventures, the soundtrack is superb and has already become a staple in my music collection. Don’t play it in the car with the kids though.

As with other recent blockbusters such as The Hobbit, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables, Django Unchained is a little too long and needed about half an hour cut from its 165 minute running time. Several opportunities to wrap the storyline up are missed to the film’s overall detriment.

Having typed all of that, I still had a good time with the movie. Don’t be influenced by the trailer. Everything that is depicted in it takes place within the first 20 minutes of the film. If your Tarantino scale has Jackie Brown at the top and Death Proof at the bottom, Django Unchained should easily rank in the top half.

Published in: on February 18, 2013 at 11:01  Leave a Comment  
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A MacGuffin with bacon please

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 10th August 2010.

Remember Quentin Tarantino’s classic 1994 film, Pulp Fiction? Some of the many intertwining plot strands involved a mysterious briefcase, the contents of which were never revealed. As frustrating as that may be to die-hard fans, what was really important to the storytelling process was how the briefcase motivated the characters to pursue it, kill for it or protect it. The contents were irrelevant. Anything could’ve been in there. It doesn’t really matter. In filmmaking, that briefcase is known as a MacGuffin.

Defined as a plot device that catches the viewers’ attention, or drives the plot of a work of fiction, the term MacGuffin was possibly coined by Alfred Hitchcock, who first mentioned the screenwriting technique during a lecture in 1939. In fact, Hitchcock’s celebrated 1934 spy thriller, The 39 Steps, revolves around the search for a MacGuffin. In the final minutes of the movie, it is revealed that the MacGuffin is actually the top secret plans for a silent plane engine.

Sometimes the MacGuffin is not a thing, but a meaning. Orson Welles’ brilliant Citizen Kane, released in 1941, is acclaimed as one of the best motion pictures of all time. A critical depiction of the life and times of media magnate William Randolph Hurst, the film centres on the meaning of renamed lead character Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud”. With the storyline following a newsreel reporter desperately seeking to find the meaning of this word, the film climaxes with said reporter unable to solve the mystery, concluding that perhaps “Rosebud” represents something that Kane had once but lost, or could never attain. Before the credits roll, it is revealed to the audience that Rosebud is a childhood toy from Kane’s past: a sled. Citizen Kane is a truly great film, and proof that the smart use of a MacGuffin can weave a breathtaking tale, no matter what the MacGuffin ultimately ends up being.

MacGuffins are utilised regularly in modern cinema, especially in espionage thrillers. This year’s Knight and Day, starring Tom “Xenu” Cruise and Cameron Diaz, revolves around a never ending battery. Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), also starring Cruise, features the mysterious Rabbit’s Foot. John Frankenheimer’s action thriller, Ronin (1998), stars Robert DeNiro chasing after another enigmatic suitcase. All are perfectly good MacGuffins.

Even last year’s mega money maker, Avatar, featured a MacGuffin. Strip away the motion capture technology and immersive 3D layering and what do you have left? You have mercenaries killing smurfs to get something and the blue natives fighting the invading forces to protect the very same something. What is that something? It’s the rather obviously named Unobtainium. Talk about a MacGuffin with cheese.

So keep an eye out for MacGuffins in your favourite movies and television shows. They are everywhere and you are bound to recognise them easily now. Remember, it is not important what the MacGuffin is, but how it catches the audience’s attention. Perhaps the MacGuffin phenomenon is even creeping into real life? Tony Abbott’s boat people MacGuffin anyone?