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'Django Unchained' an entertaining, but problematic, film

Date: 1/10/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

Welcome to a new year in film. I'm making several changes in this column, including discussing films currently playing in theaters as well as drawing your attention to DVD releases that you might have missed.

In Theaters: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino may be the ultimate movie fan turned director and his latest film is a mash-up of spaghetti Westerns and black action film. The result is a very entertaining, but problematic, film.

The outstanding Christoph Waltz plays a German dentist, King Schultz, turned bounty hunter in the West of 1858. He needs a slave who is being transported to help him identify three men he is trying to capture or kill and discovers that Django (Jamie Foxx) is much more than just someone who can point a finger at the three targets.

Django proves to be an excellent shot and someone willing to play whatever game the two men have to play to reach their quarries. They form a partnership, which includes Django's freedom and a promise from Schultz that he will help Django find and rescue his wife.

The trail for his wife ends at Candieland, the Mississippi plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his almost partner in crime, the head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

The film is quite violent, as to be expected, with one harrowing scene in which a slave is torn apart by dogs. Tarantino has eschewed much of the sex and nudity that could accompany the subject matter.

The result is an action film that seems vaguely and disquietingly exploitive of slavery and racial injustice. Although the era of black action films of the 1970s — movies that many people hold in high regard — included many productions in which race relations were a large part of the plot and were made by white filmmakers, few of those films, though, were about slavery.

Director Spike Lee, who has not seen the film, has criticized Tarantino publicly for making a film with slavery a key part of its plot. For Lee, that is a taboo subject, especially given Tarantino's style.

There are elements of dark humor in this film that sort of mesh with its overall tone and naturally Tarantino won't let historic facts stand in his way. Django uses dynamite, for instance in 1859, eight years before Alfred Nobel developed it.

What's a movie like this without an explosion? No one should expect historic accuracy from a Tarantino movie, but on the other hand, the director obviously made his actors with perfect white teeth stain them to reflect an era before daily brushing.

If you are sensitive to the repeated use of the "n word" this is a movie to avoid as well.

Foxx is an outstanding hero and Waltz shows that he is an asset to any film. DiCaprio makes for a slimy villain and Jackson, looking like Uncle Ben straight from a box of rice, provides the most interesting but least developed character.

Why Stephen would be so invested in his master's well being is this character's principal mystery and a weakness in this film. The other moment in which Tarantino falters is when DiCaprio's character asks why slaves have never risen up and revolted against their masters as they outnumber them.

Candie sees this as a fundamental difference between blacks and whites. I was waiting for Django to answer that question, but the character never does.

The work done by historian Herbert Aptheker in the 1940s showed there were about 250 slave revolts in this country. Again, no one should go to a Tarantino film looking for a Ken Burns documentary, but by including this exchange of dialogue, Tarantino raises a false question that he decides not to answer. This scene casts an ugly and inaccurate shadow on his story.

As far as Tarantino films go, "Django Unchained" doesn't go to the self-indulgence heights of the two "Kill Bill" films — undoubtedly his sloppiest and worst work. This film, though, doesn't show the precision of story-telling his last movie, "Inglourious Basterds" exhibited.

On DVD: Joan Rivers: Don't Start with Me

In 2012, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Rivers for PRIME Magazine and I couldn't have had a more down-to-earth conversation with a true show business pioneer and survivor.

At age 79, Rivers show no sign of slowing down and this new DVD also proves that she has not lost any of her comedic edge.

A Rivers performance is not for the faint of art. There isn't a subject that is off limits for her biting and rapid-fire quips. As much as you might laugh, you will also gasp.

You will probably be asking, "What did she say?" over and over.

The performance is funny, but the frequently "take-no-prisoners" approach may shock some people.

If you're a fan — perhaps you've just discovered Rivers on her new hit show "Fashion Police" — check this out on DVD.

And if you want to see an intriguing look at Rivers, rent the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."