Oscar’s journey: Django unchained.

Anatomy of my reactions to the latest (and pretty much all) Quentin Tarentino movies.

The pre-game pep talk

ok, so you think Tarenntino is overrated, you find his use of “joyous violence” a little repugnant and you generally find his movies about 90 minutes too long. But still this must have gotten an Oscar nod for some reason,

(You sure about that, like inglorious basterds?)

well, but still lots of people really like this.

(Right, like inglorious–)

well, ok, but you you have to admit every movie has had something in it you liked.

(That’s true. He has his moments. Just remove about a third of the violence, and a third of the movie, which should be about the same thing come to think of it, and add a little more substance and maybe… Ok I’ll keep an open mind. He’s rarely boring anyway.)

Opening Sequence

Well, you always know you are watching either a Tarentino movie or a seventies flick by the opening sequence with its stylized color, theme song, and even the lettering of the credits. I got the appeal the first time, but it’s starting to feel more and more like the self indulgent refusal for Tarentino to grow up and leave his childhood that his interviews tell us it is. However, it’s not a reason to hate anything and it’s certainly not unexpected. As the opening shots began to unfold I am at least reminded of the talent that does exist. There are some intriguing shots and a good sense of who our protagonist is going to be.

First obligatory over the top violence scene

Well that didn’t take long to come, even by Tarentino standards. Really, does anyone’s head actually explode like that? These are the kinds of inane questions Tarentino turns my thoughts towards when I would think he’d rather I be thinking about this poor slave and this mysterious German. But then maybe not. So much of his movies feel like just a child playing with effects. Ok, focus. Back to the story.

The introduction of the man characters and story

The bounty hunter dude is, like all Tarentino heroes, morally ambiguous at best, but unlike most Tarentino heroes, I find I like him. Wait, the last time I actually liked a Tarentino hero–I mean actually cared what happened to him, was…oh that’s right, never. Well that’s good. Maybe I have a character I can actually root for. Now if we can find a comprehensible story, maybe this won’t be so bad.

The first hour.

Hey. I’m kind of enjoying this. The story is clear enough. I think I might have two characters I can root for, seriously flawed but then who isn’t? Maybe this will be my first Tarentino “like.” Is he growing up or am I losing my standards for a good story. Hmm..worry about that later. For now let’s just enjoy the unfolding story.

Random genuinely funny scene about the absurdly stupid nature of people doing stupid things.

Oh, yeah. There it is. I’d forgotten about this aspect of Tarentino’s actual talent. Every movie has one of these. Truth is, these scenes are funny. They seem to actually fall in a class of genuine absurdist comedy. Not spoof or parody or lame jokes, but genuine absurd thought provoking humor. Too bad this kind of spark is so few and far between in these movies.

Obligatory even more over the top violent scene.

Really? Just how do you justify this? Not only do I find it impossible to see a good argument for how this scene makes the movie better, but I can make a really good argument for the opposite. We could have had better emotional impact, better continuity of story and less distraction from our forward motion without these. Inevitably people in the theater laugh, or ooh or ahh in enjoyment at these scenes so it’s not about facing the brutal reality. Like everything else it’s stylized and in my opinion drags all of his movies down. I don’t think violent movies cause violent people, but I can’t help but wonder how Jaimie Foxx can reconcile his part in this movie with his part in the recent ad calling on people to “demand” something be done about violence in America. My memory of Tarentino’s recent petulant non answers to an earnest interviewer on this subject don’t help me take these scenes as anything more than a child playing with a huge amount of resources to make gross effects. But what do I know? I’m not an Oscar nominated director, just a movie goer trying to find a story in the midst of the carnage.

The second hour

Oh! I just remembered. My earlier epiphany and relief that I might actually enjoy this movie…I experience that every time towards the end of the first hour of a Tarentino movie. But as the story drags on, as the violence ramps up, as the annoying brief flashbacks so common to Quentin begin to become increasingly uninteresting, as the momentum of the story begins to drag, as the arc begins to falter under the weight of “style” and “Quentinisms” my earlier hopeful exuberance begins to falter with it. It’s worse this time too because I suddenly recognize that this story is not greatly different from his other works and that means, with a sinking feeling, that I know exactly where this story is going and I’m not happy about it.

The Third hour

It really should be a rare movie, an extraordinary movie that drags into a third hour. It better be a true shining jewel to actually exceed 150 minutes. But what makes these movies need the third hour? Well, let’s see.

The Final way way way over the top violent scene.

Tarentino justifies the third hour by ramping up the violence each hour. I am dreading what’s to come. I’m weary of blood. I think back to my teenage years when I fed myself a too frequent diet of Friday the Thirteenth, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and realize with a shock that the only difference in some of these scenes between these earlier movies and this one is that people would have justifiably laughed at the idea of these earlier movies receiving any kind of Oscar nod; oh, and the body count in Tarentino’s movie is undoubtedly higher than Jason ever dreamed of. This movie is, in fact, better than those movies, but these violent scenes share the same exploitative gleeful violence that those did and it does distress me a bit that it’s so celebrated.

The Director takes a role

Ok, Hitchcok did it, Shyamalin does it, and so does Tarentino. I get it. Why not? You’re the director. I’d probably do it too. The difference is that the first two never fancied themselves as actors and so reserve their scenes for short cameos with no acting required. Here Tarentino plays the kind of small speaking role that should be reserved for character actors. Quentin may be a character, but he’s no actor. It’s a small forgiveable offense I suppose. It’s obvious why he chose that role. It involves a spectacular and gruesome death with lots of flash.

The culmination

The ending falls into place just like I feared it would. Without giving away anything I will only say that, as all Tarentino movies have done, I am left feeling empty. All the substance that seems to be hinted at, even driven towards, ends up being undone in the last minutes of the movie. All the noble sentiments are destroyed by silly over the top directing and writing. Big explosions and outrageous gun battles replace actual climaxes. Anything that lifted the movie from mediocrity earlier is blown up at the end with everything else. As I watch the credits (a consistent practice of mine to watch every last credit of a movie) I am again frustrated and disappointed to have been lead to the point of something, only to discover it was nothing. I saw a flash of something majestic, but it turned out once again the Emperor had no clothes. No doubt my numerous Tarentino-fan friends will tell me I missed the point, or am too prudish about violence, or that I’m looking for too much meaning in a simple piece of entertainment, but it’s this sense that Tarentino could be so much more, that his movies could be Oscar worthy that make it so disappointing that he’s not.

Full disclosure: (What other factors impact my review) I have never been a Tarentino fan, and often felt him overrated. This is the preconception I started the movie with. I only watched it as part of my Oscar Journey. I would not have gone to see it otherwise. I watched this movie alone. Although watching alone doesn’t make a great movie less great, watching with people does often make a bad movie better. I went to a matinee, and thus spent less money than I might have.

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