Thursday, March 28, 2013

From dusk till yawn - why Django Unchained was a bit of a grind-horse

What happens to your relationship with a Quentin Tarantino film when you start to find it... boring? If you aren’t seduced by the kinetic energy of a Tarantino movie, by a nonstop flow of razor-sharp dialogues and terrifically paced action sequences, is there anything worth sticking around for? (This is a serious question. Weigh in, QT fans.) I ask because I went into Django Unchained without the reservations that so many people have about Tarantino’s work – that it is shallow or derivative (as long as it’s good shallow and good derivative, I don’t mind) – and yet, much as I wanted to love it, my attention wandered as the film plodded on and on.

Even those who don’t think too highly of Tarantino give him credit for certain things, such as his limitless enthusiasm for cinema, his imaginative use of references and tributes, and the hip, ironic writing – the love of flamboyant dialogue for its own sake – which achieves a poetic force in his best work. Watching a Tarantino film with prior experience of his work, we anticipate the interplay between the long wordy scenes and the sudden bursts of violence, the former leading up to the latter; we brace ourselves for the eruptions.

The first few scenes in Django Unchained have this quality, most of it courtesy the erudite bounty hunter King Schultz (an author-backed part, perfectly played by Christoph Waltz), who uses words like “acolyte” and “parley” with the same ease as he draws his gun. English is not his native language, but lines like “If you can keep your caterwauling
down to a minimum, I’d like to finish my line of enquiry” and “On the off-chance there are any astronomy aficionados among you, the North Star is that one” trip off his tongue. You don't take the character, and the way he speaks, at face value, but all this is just as enjoyable as the incongruously sophisticated banter between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction.
 

Many intriguing things happen in this story about the adventures of Schultz and the freshly liberated slave Django (Jamie Foxx). The triumphal, wish-fulfilling aspect of Tarantino’s cinema has been on full display in his two most recent films (Inglourious Basterds being the one before this), which present alternate-universe versions of slavery and the Holocaust in terms that a good-hearted little boy with an appetite for fast talk, gore and contemporary music might want to see them presented. (If Woodrow Wilson, or whoever, said of The Birth of a Nation nearly a hundred years ago that it was “history written in lightning”, Basterds and Django are history rewritten in celluloid, by someone who is more interested in cinema’s past than in the real-world past.) But the idea of the underdog who must prevail – through the magical power of film – was there in the earlier, non-period works too. For instance, Kill Bill played like a long psycho-dream of vengeance achieved against impossible odds; if we suspend our disbelief enough to buy that The Bride can singlehandedly overpower dozens of Yakuza fighters, it is largely thanks to the power of choreography and editing. And even Pulp Fiction (still for my money Tarantino’s best film, however unfashionable that view might be) used its sinuous, non-linear structure to provide the illusion of a happy ending, by “resurrecting” one of its most likable characters after we have seen him die midway through the film. It showed a new dimension of cinema’s capacity for supplying the feel-good moment.

In reaching for its own happy conclusion, Django Unchained moves between two meters: there is an apparently serious effort to depict the moral codes and assumptions of a long-past age (the American South in the 1850s), to show people being confronted with new possibilities that can upend their established way of life and are therefore threatening. “Why come into my town and start troubling? These are nice people,” a sheriff asks Schultz (the “nice people” being townsfolk who have been shaken up by the mere sight of a black man riding a horse as if he was one of them). But this being Tarantino, the social commentary goes hand in hand with cartoon violence, nods to B-movies and slapstick comedy: how could he possibly resist a broad comic skit about the unfeasibility of the white hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan? So here is a film that revels in gratuitously “funny” bloodletting as well as super-fast zoom-ins and zoom-outs during dramatic encounters (in imitation of low-budget spaghetti westerns full of “HUH?!” and “OUCH!” moments) – but also attempts the self-consciously languid pace of a Sergio Leone film, and provides over-sentimental moments such as the one where Django fancies he sees his lovely wife everywhere he goes. (Incidentally, for most of the film, Django himself is less a hero and more a foil, being humourless and relatively inarticulate – and remember, in the Tarantino universe, inarticulacy is a character flaw.)


For me, these clashing tones didn’t work as well as they did in the earlier Tarantino movies; the first 40 minutes or so were terrific, but the lack of energy in the film’s second half was surprising. After a point, the pauses and silences, instead of being exercises in anticipation – the lull before the explosion – become merely...pauses and silences. The dialogue is not as crackling as it could have been, the pacing is dreary (the scene where the Leonardo Dicaprio character gets phrenological could have been so much smarter, but I got the impression that Tarantino was content with setting up the sight gag of the skull on the dining table) and the performances, though good, aren’t enough to cover the holes. (In his early scenes, Samuel L Jackson is brilliantly hysterical as the old slave who is just as keen to maintain the status quo as his white masters are; but after half an hour or so, I wanted him to shut up and stop doddering around.) Even the Ku Klux Klan setpiece – which is funny in a Monty Pythonish way, and makes a practical point in addition to exposing the banality of Evil – goes on for longer than it needed to.

Late in the film, in a casting decision that typically combines self-indulgence with self-deprecation, Tarantino appears in a short role as an Australian slave-driver. The character gets a spectacular, explosive end, much the same way as the film eventually does – but he also looks as flabby and distracted as Django Unchained so often is. And his accent is way off.

[Did a version of this for Business Standard Weekend]

36 comments:

  1. On rereading the piece, I realise it doesn't adequately convey how much I enjoyed the first 45 minutes of the film. But that's always the case with a review that focuses on the things one didn't like - the negative criticism takes on a life of its own and overwhelms everything else.

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  2. I am going to mostly repeat myself from elsewhere here - so I had similar thoughts about the film. It didn's suck me in like any of the earlier Tarantino films and in fact gradually became tedious as it went along. I found Foxx cold and disinterested. Waltz was of course terrific.

    There might be heavy films, arty films, masala films, layered films but all of them have "moments" that you'd like to hark back to, that will sometime define the film, that will make you sit up and notice you are watching something good/unique/special, or at least tell you that this is "interesting". I found nothing of that sort here and for a Tarantino film, that's.. shocking.

    Pulp Fiction may be his best film but for my money, Inglourious Basters is his most entertaining film till date. I so rooted for him to win the Oscars that year (so painful to see it go to Hurt Locker) that when I watched this, post Oscars, I scratched my head and said to myself, well he deserves one in his cabin anyway.

    PS
    So true about the negative parts overwhelming a review. I recently experienced that with Vishwaroopam, a film I wrote about, and also enjoyed quite a bit.

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  3. Gradwolf: another reason to dislike QT is that he is basically Federer's older, pudgier twin.
    (Kidding, of course: I don't dislike either of them.)

    I know what you mean by this - ...all of them have "moments" that you'd like to hark back to, that will sometime define the film, that will make you sit up and notice you are watching something good/unique/special... I wouldn't say there is nothing of that sort in Django, but there isn't anywhere near enough.

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  4. I found Foxx cold and disinterested

    I just read David Denby's piece on the film, where he suggests that "Foxx doesn't always seem to be in on the joke". Sounds plausible, though I doubt Tarantino was being comical or ironic in all those scenes where Django sees visions of his sweetheart. (Thing is, it's so difficult to tell.) And what's an actor supposed to do in those situations?

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  5. Tarantino has to disappoint.



    He has ran short of original stories with Kill Bill and now ensconce in historical revisionism...world war 2, slave trade and next in the alley is probably American civil war.



    One cannot blame Tarantino...no Writer/Director (or any serious Director) will have more than 5-6 original stories to tell...the best ones start adapting novels / short stories or stops making films. And Tarantino is in a stage where he can green light movies with his name...hard to say NO.

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  6. no Writer/Director (or any serious Director) will have more than 5-6 original stories to tell...the best ones start adapting novels / short stories or stops making films

    Anon: this is neither here nor there. Many great films have been made out of "unoriginal" stories. (It's not like any of the stories in Pulp Fiction was inherently original, for instance.) Failure of execution is a much bigger problem than deficiency in subject matter.

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  7. Jai - I can't agree more with you on this. You even mentioned Tarantino's totally out of nowhere accent in that cameo role. I love his films but I had to shut my computer when Tarantino started talking in that cameo role and had to delete the file from my hard disk :) Well, there were no such flaws. But, this film just did not have Tarantino style save for the first half an hour or so. The scenes with violence were so cliched. The scene when dogs are about to attack a slave reminded me so much of Koyla (Shahurukh Khan n Rajesh Roshan). As if that was not enough, there were constant flashbacks to that scene, when Waltz was just about to kill Dicaprio. The other thing which the film did not have was an interesting female character - which exists in all his other films. Kerry Washington's character is out of "Saas-Bahu" serials and when she claps seeing her man on a horse at the end of the film, I really wondered if the scene came out of the same man, who had once lashed out at an interviewer, who questioned him saying that Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill is meant to empower women. Disgusting as it was, T'tino's comment on Uma Thurman clearly shows how much he dislikes cliched representations of women in films. And in Django, he did the same! But, anyway, I am glad that you dedicated one post on your blog to him :) I nearly thought you don't like him much! I read in one of your earlier posts that "T'tino has a place in cinema only as far as exploiting violence for entertainment is concerned", or something to that effect...

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  8. I read in one of your earlier posts that "T'tino has a place in cinema only as far as exploiting violence for entertainment is concerned"

    Pessimist Fool: huh?? I'm fairly sure I've never said anything of the sort (not just about QT but about any other director).

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  9. And yeah, I can't agree more Pulp Fiction is his best film in my view too with Reservoir Dogs being close second (it has all the ingredients, the dish is just not as tasty as in case of Pulp Fiction). I mean how many dialogues are better than this, "This profession is full to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers, who think their ass will age like wine. If you think, it will age like wine, it won't. If you think it will age like vinegar, it does"...

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  10. Pessimist Fool: don't take this the wrong way, but if you're quoting QT, you should make sure you get it dead right. This is the correct quote:
    "Motherfuckers who think their ass will age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar... it does. If you mean it gets better with age... it don't." The quote you put up (complete with a couple of extra commas) doesn't sound like anything peak-form QT would write.

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  11. Jai - oops, yeah, I wanted to google for exact words. But, bad internet connection prevented me from doing it.

    And now that I think more of it. I think you said somewhere, few years ago, in one of your posts, "Tarantino does has a place in history of cinema for creating tension through extreme violence" I think I misunderstood it. I thought you meant, “Tarantino has a place only for creating…..”

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  12. Ha! Yes, well played with the Federer dig. Triplets with Joaquin Phoenix actually.

    Did you watch The Master?

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  13. Oh come on, Phoenix at least has a personality, thanks to that scar or harelip or whatever it is. For Roger to look that interesting, we'd have to set Hannibal Lecter on him for a few seconds *enters a pleasant reverie*

    No, haven't seen The Master. Hoping to sometime.

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  14. Many great films have been made out of "unoriginal" stories. (It's not like any of the stories in Pulp Fiction was inherently original, for instance.) Failure of execution is a much bigger problem than deficiency in subject matter.


    We are talking about the same...the 'unoriginal stories' will be mostly novels or short stories. I was referring to Tarantino's original stories falling short of the high standards he has set for himself after Pulp Fiction. (The stories of Pulp Fiction are indeed original - how often have we seen a Bible spouting black hit man? Even Marsellus Wallace was original..."what do you get with a gold medal? You won't even get a credit card." There is an 'ironic truism' to this statement. Tarantino's black characters are phenomenally contemporary than what Spike 'I am more Black' Lee can cook up.)


    And how can it be a failure of execution...Tarantino is as competent as they come. His source material was unoriginal and stale - therein lies the problem. He has to seriously reinvent himself...but the strong BO receipts justifies whatever he is doing.


    Tarantino's classic script which he should have directed was 'True Romance'. I don't think Tony Scott got the subtleties.

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  15. And how can it be a failure of execution...Tarantino is as competent as they come.

    Anon: not sure what you mean here. Even the very best artists - across mediums - have had failures of execution at various points in their career. In the case of this film, as I mentioned, I thought the main issue was the slack pace (which I'm now hearing may be connected with QT working with a new editor for the first time). And to an extent, the relative lack of spark in the dialogues, which again is an execution problem.

    Again - I completely disagree that "his source material was unoriginal and stale - therein lies the problem".

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  16. Loved the movie and have been looking for a review from a person who didn't. Always love reading the opposite view :-). We have exactly opposite taste in Tarantino (My favourite Tarantino is Kill Bill which I believe is your least favourite. His use of Ennio moricone score for declaration of war on O Ren ishi still gives me goosebumps).

    With Tarantino, style is first and foremost and I love the way he tries to mix and match his influences. His use of music to draw out the emotions also feels familiar and close to home (Bollywood). I can understand how the lack of a central theme can be off putting to some.

    I particularly liked Samuel L Jackson in this one. His nervous twitches/ ticks reminded me of Kramer in Seinfeld. I would agree with you that Jamie Foxx and leo di Caprio were bad casting decisions and the character of Django was not interesting enough (Too much focus on Christoph Schulz).

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  17. ...Kill Bill which I believe is your least favourite

    Sid: where did you get that from? I liked Kill Bill very much (though I liked Volume 1 better than Volume 2). Now I feel like I need to go back and check the archives for what I've written about QT in the past - there seem to be so many misunderstandings around here!

    Also, where did I say that Foxx and Dicaprio were bad casting decisions? I thought Leo was quite well-cast.

    Finally, no issue with style being first and foremost (to the extent that it's possible to separate style from content, which is a much more complex business than many people realise). Some of my favourite directors (including De Palma, who is one of QT's favourites too) are superb stylists. And I feel Django would have been a better film if there had been more of QT the stylist from earlier films in it.

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  18. I sort of agree with Anon to an extent. I too feel the same way. Here's a man who has made films for last 20 years. I may be jumping on conclusion but his films, which come closer to reality (not that it's a great thing) are Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and even Jackie Brown. In the sense, his characters speak lines which are very believable but which for some reason didn't find favour with any other director (may be an issue with sensibilities). From Kill Bill onwards, T'tino's films are a lot more about his influences and less (on a relative basis) about how people around him must be talking. May be, its a side-effect of being in the same business for a long period of time. So, he has to go back to history to find inspiration like Inglorious Basterds and now Django Unchained. But, nothing wrong with it, in my view. If he can make a film as interesting as Inglorious Basterds, there's no harm in revisiting history. Btw, T'tino himself has said that he is not going to make films when he is past 60. At max, we can expect him to make 3 more films...

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  19. From Kill Bill onwards, T'tino's films are a lot more about his influences and less (on a relative basis) about how people around him must be talking.

    Pessimist Fool: not so sure about that - I think Pulp Fiction was definitely much more about his influences, cinematic and literary, than about the "real world" around him - it's absolutely chockful of references to films ranging from Kiss Me Deadly to Bande a part to Deliverance, and dozens of others. But it's possible that the proportions changed a bit with Kill Bill.

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  20. Jai, PF: I'd hazard that post Jackie Brown, what has really changed is that QT's films have started behaving and looking like genre films, rather than films touched by genre cinema. This lends them a slightly cartoonish edge, something the fanboys seem to revel in. I keep waiting for a return to the narrative sophistication of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown - which seems less and less likely.

    David Thomson's review had an interesting parting shot: '[Tarantino] has a talent that begs for the imprisonment of screwball comedy for the rest of his life.'

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  21. I completely disagree that "his source material was unoriginal and stale - therein lies the problem"...


    What I meant by source material is his own screenplay, not the subject as such. From a stale screenplay it will be very hard to concoct a decent feature.

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  22. @ a fan apart - yeah, this sounds like more logical assessment of his works....I remember a friend of mine had seen Pulp Fiction many years ago, when most of us in the group had not seen it yet. Someone asked him, " What is Pulp Fiction all about?". He thought for a moment and said, "It's hard to say. It's sophisticated fuss" It was hard to categorize his earlier work...

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  23. I think Tarantino suffers from the same problem as Woody Allen and probably even Martin Amis--no matter how hard they try to produce a "different" work, they end up making the same film again and again, and rehashing the same ideas, packaged differently. If the packaging is glittery enough, one is not able to see beneath the surface, but if it is lackluster, then you begin to get the feeling that there is nothing new about it. This is a major problem (if there is one!) with Tarantino. Most of his films are about women underdogs: Jackie Brown, Kill Bill are obvious, but Pulp Fiction and Inglorious are not so obvious.

    For example, In Pulp Fiction, the character of Honey Bunny and Mia seem troubled, living under the shadow of their husbands, and they need an event to feel "independent"--in Mia's case it comes with the date, in Honey Bunny's case, she gets the upper hand by being in a less life threatening situation than her husband.

    In Inglorious, Shosanna needs to avenge her family's death to satisfy her feeling of revenge...so you see, more often than not, its about overcoming some sort of inferiority complex--and that happens to be the basic premise/theme of all his films. Unless he gets rid of that "template", Tarantino's film will have diminishing returns.

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  24. they end up making the same film again and again, and rehashing the same ideas, packaged differently

    BK: I don't see this as a major problem at all - it can be said just as easily about many of the greatest directors in film history (it is one of the underpinnings of the auteur theory, after all) as well as authors. And I think a lot of creative people would kill to have the "problems" that Woody Allen and Martin Amis do!

    Again (and I suspect I'm the one repeating himself endlessly now), what one should look at is the manner in which each individual film uses those recurring themes/motifs/images. I don't think there is any template that has to be ditched.

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  25. "Quentin Tarantino no longer makes movies; he makes trailers " -Andew O Hehir. I think that really sums up what I felt. I really enjoyed many scenes, in fact I enjoyed the long shots more than the talky scenes - but as a cohesive whole the movie didn't add up to much.
    By the way, have you seen Stoker, the quasi remake of "Shadow of a Doubt"? I found the symbolism very overt, especially after having read Robin Wood's piece on the Hitch movie. Though it is very nice to look at, I didn't like it much because of the showy artiness and bad acting.

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  26. If you are really interested in QT and Django you should read the script for which he won the oscar ( the script that was submitted for consideration and is available online). Few key scenes (at least 3) 2 of which center around Kerry Washington's character are missing from the movie. These scenes add depth to both the Candie as well as the Hilde characters. Django is not a good movie but it has its moments and merits not the least of which is the actual depicting of the buying and selling of slaves which very few American movies actually bother to show - its starker in the script.

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  27. i wish QT included more scenes about that girl with red scarf.
    ( If u don't remember it , here is the picture - http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Zoe-Bell-Reveals-Her-Django-Unchained-Secret-35592.html)

    Her character sounds pretty interesting.

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  28. I have no particular comment other than saying that if I were Tarantino I would be mighty pleased at the quality and passion of interest in my movies that you and your readers demonstrate. Great going.Mayank

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  29. @Jai - Sorry for the confusion. I thought you mentioned in one of your posts that you do not like Kill Bill and find it hard to take the movie seriously.

    Jamie foxx was a bad casting choice as I felt he does not draw in the audience or woo them. Some of it has to do with the amount of attention being given to Dr. Shulz. Most of the movie plays out as a struggle between Schulz and Candy with Django just tagging along. Also, Will smith was the original choice for the role and I feel he would would have added humour and connection. Maybe he didnt like the script being so focused on others.

    For the Candy role, I felt Di caprio was too friendly and not menacing enough. He does not do enough to bring out the hate in the audience. I would have preferred someone older, someone like Dennis Hooper playing Frank Booth.

    On the style vs content argument, it would depend on how we define style. Is it the visuals / cinematography? Is it the flow of the movie ( right pace / right editing)? For all his talent, he ws never the visual stylist like Brian De Palma.

    To me, strength of QT as far as style goes lies in Dialogues (similar to Guy Ritchie), Humour, music, the swagger of the characters and the filth of the genre he chooses (not sure how to put this). All of these are present in abundance in Django Unchained.

    @BK - "I think Tarantino suffers from the same problem as Woody Allen and probably even Martin Amis--no matter how hard they try to produce a "different" work, they end up making the same film again and again, and rehashing the same ideas, packaged differently."

    Anyone from the entertainment industry who does something off the mainstream and does it well would face this dilemma. After sometime, they face a choice between doing what they do quite well or trying something different. The risk of trying something different is to alienate your loyal fan base. Example - Megadeth and metallica are pretty decent with their heavy metal music. Now they can continue with that and they are comfortable with that and they will be called stale and repetitive. However, when they tried something different, there was a strong criticism from their fanbase.

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  30. I felt Di caprio was too friendly and not menacing enough.

    Sid: I think that's part of the point. He isn't just meant to be a menacing, hate-inducing villain - he is meant to also be a cheesy B-movie bad guy. The very first time we see him, the camera does that cartoonish zoom-in.

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  31. While I share your enjoyment of Waltz' performance and the dialogue Tarantino has written for him, I don't think his diction is as implausible as you suggest– it is, rather, a surprisingly good imitation of how a certain type of literary-minded European speaks English– with perfect grammar but unusually formal and lush phrasing. Think of the prose style of a Nabokov or, more recently, Aleksandar Hemon.

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  32. Just completed Django 10 minutes ago and I agree with you, I purposely did not read this post of yours before, and yes the movie started to drag eversince Hilda was found. The soundtrack is also not *that* good.. another reason I like his movies. Am surprised to find that you also prefer Kill Bill Vol 1 over vol 2... you wont beleive, during my alcoholism, I would jsut play over and over again Vol1.. the sheer beauty of violence! and also the whole sequence in pulp fiction where the hero takes out the boss's woman for a date....
    Have been posting comments as anonymus for long.. just don't want your readers to click on my *google linked blog* accidentally.. so here I am again as an *annon*.
    P.S.: Will you ever review 'Seema'?

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  33. Anonymous: thanks for the comment, and a request: for future comments could you pick a moniker and stick to it? (It doesn't have to be your own name, of course, or have a link attached.) It helps in distinguishing between the different anonymous commenters here.

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  34. I am a late entrant to this blog.I enjoyed the pic without any analysis of Tarantino and his earlier films !your experience with the film is OK. But it is not the last word though !A viewer who enjoys the film is the best critic. Bala

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  35. your experience with the film is OK. But it is not the last word though !

    K: yes, of course that goes without saying - no one of any intelligence would ever suggest that their take on a film is "the last word".

    However, I do disagree that "a viewer who enjoys the film is the best critic" - that isn't necessarily the case.

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  36. What I felt was, though the second half seemed a bit dreary with prolonged conversations(which I didn't feel boring though), the tension and creepy trudging phase towards the bombardment of the conflicts of the characters, makes it worth a watch. And ofcourse, the having the pre-conceived idea that it's a QT movie, makes us bear the boring, lull moments in the look out of some quirky, fresh outbursts.

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