Video Verdict: ‘Django Unchained’

Christoph Waltz, left, and Jamie Foxx star in writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s stylized Western, “Django Unchained.” Both Tarantino and Waltz won Oscars for their work in the film: Waltz for best supporting actor and Tarantino for best original screenplay.

Christoph Waltz, left, and Jamie Foxx star in writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s stylized Western, “Django Unchained.” Both Tarantino and Waltz won Oscars for their work in the film: Waltz for best supporting actor and Tarantino for best original screenplay.

An Oscar-winning Western by writer-director Quentin Tarantino is the only major theatrical release making its way to home video this week.

Django Unchained

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
Anchor Bay
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has always remembered one critical thing about movies: Even those that make social statements can be fun. His adherence to this philosophy has provided filmgoers with hours of gory goodness, yet his movies always seem more substantial and slick than the genre films that inspire him.

“Django Unchained” is a perfect example of the phenomenon. On its surface, the movie is a basic spaghetti western built on unlikely plotting and characters. Tarantino even uses old-school title sequences, like those from the “Grindhouse” project that he and Robert Rodriguez produced. These obvious nods to B cinema are exactly the things that make the movie so enjoyable because Tarantino is a master at walking the line between satire and drama.

He embraces outrageous plotting and regularly sacrifices subtlety for graphic violence and language, yet he always stops short of the inane. What sets most Tarantino movies apart is the characters that the man and his actors bring to life. Tarantino writes great dialogue, and he’s equally good at finding the right performers to deliver it. On screen, the result is a fireworks show that’s hard to resist.

The title character in “Django” is a slave who is cruelly separated from his wife in the days leading up to the American Civil War. Things look bleak as the film begins, with the chained and badly beaten Django (Jamie Foxx) at the mercy of southern slave traders. His luck changes when a bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) makes him a free man. The only catch is that Django has to help locate King’s next bounty.

Django happens to be a crack shot, and he and King hit it off, so the two men continue working together. Eventually, King even volunteers to help Django locate his missing wife (Kerry Washington).

Waltz and Foxx are fantastic, and they give their alter egos the sort of larger-than-life presence required of genre-movie heroes. What’s more, they run into a number of equally fascinating persons during their journey. Highlights include Leonardo DiCaprio as a callous plantation owner named Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as a subservient black man willing to betray his own race.

The plotting for “Django” is frequently unrealistic, and the ending is particularly unlikely. Still, it’s easy to enjoy the wild ride that Tarantino delivers. Even better, he serves it up while making a statement about the insidiousness of the U.S. slave trade. Many directors favor style over substance, but Tarantino deftly mixes the two. “Django” is stylized enough for film lovers to identify as Tarantino’s, but it also has depth. Because of that, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, and it walked away with two: best supporting actor for Waltz and best original screenplay for Tarantino.

“Django Unchained” is available as a digital rental and download, but several retailers are attempting to persuade fans into a DVD or Blu-ray purchase. For instance, Target is selling the film with exclusive Steelbook packaging and an extra disc containing footage of the stars at Comic-Con. Meanwhile, Best Buy has an exclusive Django on Tour feature with its release, and Wal-Mart has an exclusive making-of documentary.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Disneynature – Wings of Life”: Documentary film about butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, bats and the important role they play in pollenating flowers. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg and narrated by Meryl Streep.

“Counting Cars” – Season 1: This spinoff of the History Channel series “Pawn Stars” centers on Danny Koker, owner of a business that specializes in restoring, customizing and flipping classic cars.

“Repo Man”: Criterion Collection reissue of writer-director Alex Cox’s 1984 film about a young punk (Emilio Estevez) who helps a veteran repossession man (Harry Dean Stanton) reclaim cars. Things get particularly interesting when they try to repo a Chevy Malibu loaded with top-secret material.

“A Monster in Paris”: Animated French movie about a misunderstood monster who is in love with a beautiful singer. Although originally presented in French, this release features an English-language voice cast that includes Adam Goldberg, Sean Lennon, Vanessa Paradis, Danny Huston and Catherine O’Hara. Directed by Bibo Bergeron (“Shark Tale”).

“Iron Man – Rise of Technovore”: New, feature-length animated movie in which Iron Man is blamed for a terrorist attack and must go on the run. At the same time, he faces off against a villain who has developed new technology that may be superior to his Iron Man armor.

“The Haunting in Connecticut 2 – Ghosts of Georgia”: This sister film to the original “Haunting in Connecticut” doesn’t take place anywhere near the title state. Instead it centers on a family that moves into a historic home in Georgia, only to discover that it is haunted. Abigail Spencer, Chad Michael Murray, Katee Sackhoff, Emily Alyn Lind and Cicely Tyson star. Directed by Tom Elkins.

“Delhi Safari”: Indian animated film about a group of animals that travel to Delhi to ask parliament why their jungle habitat is being destroyed. The English-language soundtrack features voice acting by Jane Lynch, Christopher Lloyd, Vanessa Williams, Cary Elwes, Brad Garrett and Jason Alexander.

“At the Gate of the Ghost”: This Thai remake of “Rashomon” centers on a murder viewed from three distinct perspectives. Directed by M.L. Pundhevanop Dhewakul.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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