Django Unchained ★★★½

This film is a bizarre mix of things: massive outbursts of fast-paced violence (of course -- it's Tarantino) follow quiet, slow scenes of people talking about random things such as German folklore and phrenology. More a peripatetic series of encounters than a coherent story, the film rambles a lot. There was something slightly off about the pacing, which felt extremely slow at times, and the whole thing probably could have been at least half an hour shorter.

Despite that, I enjoyed the movie. My favourite scenes were the ones involving Leonardo DiCaprio as sadistic slave owner Calvin Candie (his plantation is called Candieland -- no, really) and Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, his head house negro. The two work surprisingly well together as a sort of strange comic duo and bring life to a movie that occasionally suffers from feeling a bit stale. Jackson's character is a crotchety old man who's been with the Candie family for so long that he feels quite comfortable being, shall we say ... curmudgeonly with his master. At the same time, he's totally sycophantic, standing behind Candie's chair at dinner and laughing loudly at his jokes. Both DiCaprio and Jackson are excellent in their roles and their chemistry is so great that I feel they should work together again ASAP.

Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz also make quite the dynamic duo here. Waltz's character Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter, purchases Django and promises him his freedom in return for Django's help on a case. The two work together so well that they decide to stick together so Schultz can help Django free his wife, Hildy, now a "comfort girl" (as bad as it sounds) at Candieland. Waltz is just wonderful. He should be in every movie. I also generally really enjoy Jamie Foxx, but I don't feel this is one of his best ever performances. He's restrained at most times, which I guess Django has to be, and I think he's going for an undercurrent of seething rage -- makes sense, but it doesn't come across that well. Maybe it's the fact that I'm also currently reading Toni Morrison's Beloved (an interesting pairing to be sure!), but I think I was hoping for a bit of a deeper look at the impact of slavery and it frustrated me a bit that we don't learn much about Django's internal life. On the other hand, I loved Inglourious Basterds and I wouldn't exactly say that was a deep look at the Holocaust. So, I guess I should have adjusted my expectations to a more appropriately superficial level.

The other thing I found a bit disappointing was the lack of substance to the character of Django's wife, played by Kerry Washington, who has shown herself in the past to be a more than capable actress. All Hildy really does in the film is look pretty and/or scared and speak a little German. She has very few lines and never does anything proactive.

Overall, I felt like Django Unchained couldn't quite decide how to get where it wanted to go. It is essentially a slavery revenge fantasy, but somehow it's not quite over the top enough to be really satisfying in that respect: there's no Hitler-getting-ripped-to-shreds-by-bullets-in-a-flaming-movie-theatre-full-of-Nazis moment here. It also meanders a bit too much, and it left a somewhat confused impression in my mind. That said, many of the characters and set pieces are absolutely excellent (for example, the one involving a hilariously inept gang of Ku Klux Klan members), so ultimately it's a very entertaining experience.