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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Let My People Go: Django Unchained vs Lincoln

Timely as ever, here's my take on two very different films dealing with quite similar subject matter.

Effectively bookending the American Civil War on either side, we have two major Awards contenders, both by highly respected filmmakers and both dealing with the tricky subject of American slavery. And yet, you could seldom find two more different films than Quentin Tarantino's irreverent western/ revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, and Steven Spielberg's solemn political drama, Lincoln. Still, they do make for one interesting - if very, very long - double bill whose strengths and weaknesses somehow complement each other perfectly.

Tarantino's latest continues in the tradition of his recent offerings of being simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. On the plus side, Django Unchained proves once again that his writing has demonstrably evolved significantly, as his undeniable ear for smart dialogue is finally matched by distinct, if not particularly deep, characterization. Crucially, it's no longer the case that every single character simply talks like Quentin Tarantino, as he has finally started to allow his characters to have their own unique voices and personalities. Best of all, in the Western genre, he has finally found the perfect home for his hyper-stylised dialogue, as well as a much needed constraint against his often tiresome pop-culture references. Django may be a genre pastiche, but it's one that is constantly hilarious, gripping and way more fun than a film built around the horrors of slavery has any right being.

With all of the films great many pleasures - and really, a good two thirds of it is genuinely wonderful - it's such a pity that Tarantino hasn't been able to shake off the impression of being a hyper-active, incredibly smart and emotionally stunted fourteen year old super-geek whose great passion for films is matched only by his seeming inability to actually empathize with real human beings. Yes, he is now slightly less emotionally stunted (emotionally stunted as a filmmaker, that is - I wouldn't presume to know what he's like in "real life") and the settings of his last couple of movies have forced him to confront real human tragedy, but while he is arguably smarter than ever, there seems to be no end to his increasing hyperactivity and self-indulgence.        

What this means is that Django Unchained is a film that is considerably less than the sum of its best parts. A good majority of its running time is given over to character interactions that are, by turns, electrifying, tense and occasionally rather sweet (no kidding, it looks like uber-fanboy Tarantino might actually have a beating, human heart in there somewhere) and, in its best moments, you wouldn't be alone in seeing Django Unchained as the best film of the year. And, is it just me, or does that brilliantly comical KKK segment recall the Coen Brothers at their demented best?

Unfortunately, all this good will is undone considerably by a final act that is both mostly unneeded and counter-intuitive to what works about the rest of the film. Once again, Tarantino feels the need to return to his most over-used device as he abandons the smart, dialogue-driven storytelling of the first couple of acts of the film for a descent into bloody, and frankly tiresome, violence.

The first two thirds of the film do undeniably feature quite a bit of equally bloody violence, but its always used as a way to punctuate the often terrifically tense character interactions or as the shocking punchline of an expertly crafted gag or even as a way to move the story along. The problem with the violence at the end isn't that it's offensive or that it doesn't on occasion capture the spark of the earlier parts of the films, but that it's mostly lazy, rather boring and far too reminiscent of most of Tarantino's previous films. It also makes the film way longer than it ever needed to be.

Compare and contrast this to Spielberg's Lincoln. As controlled and precise as Django is unwieldy and ill disciplined, Lincoln may be long but Spielberg uses its two and a half hours to tell a very contained story about the man who may well be America's best and most beloved president ever. Rather than trying to capture the entirety of Abraham Lincoln's life on screen, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) wisely explore Lincoln's character through the lens of his trying to get the 13th amendment - the latest addition to the US constitution that would forever ban slavery in that country - passed as the American Civil War rages towards its final days.

What results is a true story played out like a more austere episode of The West Wing and, like Aaron Sorkin's beloved TV series, that means plenty of well written dialogue, engaging characters, a heart that is undoubtedly in the right place and an unwillingness to spoon feed the audience, even if the politics in the film are often quite complex - and largely alien to non-American audiences. It probably would help to watch a few episodes of The West Wing or, if is your want, some local American news if you want to grasp some of the more innate intricacies of American politics, but it's hardly necessary. Even if the details are somewhat obscure, the sheer emotional charge of the politics at hand make for some truly gripping viewing. The most impressive example of this comes towards the end of the film as a tallying of votes - towards a result that everyone knows by now, no less - is true, nail-biting stuff. 

This being a Spielberg film though, there is plenty of well-judged family drama as well, as he portrays the titular hero as an incredible leader and a genuinely good man, but one who is unquestionably flawed as well - especially in his dealings with his oft neglected family, spearheaded by his estranged wife and defiant oldest son. Between the family drama and emotionally charged political happenings, Lincoln is an unabashedly sentimental piece of work - but with dramatic heavyweights like Spielberg and Kushner at the helm, the sentiment is mostly very well earned.

For all of this though, Lincoln does face suffer from the same major flaw that plagues the vast majority of Spielberg's more "serious" films: it's just a bit too reverent to its subject matter to ever really cut loose. Unlike his untouchable Hollywood blockbusters (Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Jurassic Park), Spielberg's obvious and very deserving respect of Abraham Lincoln and the sensitivity with which he broaches the subject of slavery result in a film that is a bit too safe and a bit too stiff for its own good.

Effectively, Lincoln and Django Unchained are mirror images of one another. While Django is often tasteless, unbearably self-indulgent and in desperate need of a good editor, it's never less than gleefully energetic. Even its more boring moments have a real energy to them. Lincoln, on the other hand, is tasteful, beautifully controlled and emotionally engaging, but it sometimes feels a bit lifeless and a bit too aware of its own worthiness.

What the two films do have most in common though - aside for their similar settings, of course - is the sheer quality of their performances. Again though, there is a fairly noticeable difference between the two. Jamie Fox may be the nominal star of the film, but Django Unchained is a definite ensemble piece and even if Christoph Waltz does steal the show with his wonderful mix of warmth, wit and danger, Fox and, both playing strongly against type, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson are no less brilliant for it.

Linclon, though, is all but a one man show. Yes, Sally Fields is great as Lincoln's long-suffering wife and yes, Tommy Lee Jones is in typically phenomenal sardonic form as possibly the film's most interesting character - a radical anti-slavery campaigner who is forced to compromise some of his passionate conviction in order to get the job done - but this is Daniel Day-Lewis' film. It's easy to sneer at the excesses of "method" acting, but Day-Lewis' decision to emerge himself in his character throughout filming has resulted in something that is less a performance and more a physical re-embodiment of Abraham Lincoln, resurrected in a way that the most advanced CGI technology in the world couldn't hope to replicate. Simply, so jaw-dropping is Day-Lewis' transformation that Lincoln features in its central role, not Daniel Day-Lewis but Abraham Lincoln himself - and that's despite the idea that no one alive knows what Abraham Lincoln was actually like in real life.      

Either way, here are two really worthwhile, if flawed movies, that are more than deserving of your time and both score a very high...

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