Django Unchained

ImageQuentin Tarantino has said publicly that he wants to retire after his tenth film. He is looking to leave behind a strong filmography that shows no weakness or slump at the end. His eighth entry (counting the Kill Bill volumes separately) into this abstract Decalogue is Django Unchained, and it may be his greatest achievement since Pulp Fiction.

Django Unchained is the finest American slavery period bounty hunter Western ever made, but clearly that doesn’t mean much. As preposterous as that description is, that’s what is so great about a Tarantino film; he digs deep into a traditional genre and develops it into something distinctive. The same can be said about his Holocaust revisionist historical war film, Inglorious Basterds. The title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave with a horrific past who through a chain of auspicious events becomes partnered with a slavery opposed ex-dentist and current bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). This partnership is sealed with an agreement that Schultz will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous Southern plantation.

Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino should win his second Original Screenplay Oscar since no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. You may never look at the Ku Klux Klan, or Don Johnson for that matter, the same way again.

The cast is impeccable and is sprinkled with familiar faces beyond the leads, but the leads are all excellent. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar worthy performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved. Django Unchained is a front-runner for one of the year’s best films as well as a front-runner for one of Tarantino’s best films. If this is any indication of what the nearly 50-year-old director has left in him, it is hard to imagine him walking away after stepping behind a camera only two more times. A

Advertisements

Les Misérables

Image

It is a fairly accepted story that when the sculptor, Auguste Rodin wanted to sculpt Victor Hugo, Hugo agreed, but demanded Rodin come to his house, and he refused to pose for him. This prompted Rodin to frantically sketch the poet and attempt to capture his essence. This interpretation of Victor Hugo worked out and resulted in some famous sketches, busts and sculptures. It also worked out in 1985 when Claude-Michel Schönberg interpreted Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables into a global musical sensation. Now, as 2012 draws to a close, another interpretation of Hugo’s Les Misérables has been released. Director Tom Hooper follows his best picture Oscar winning film The Kings Speech with the first ever film adaptation of the 1985 musical Les Misérables. Unfortunately, Tom Hooper is no Rodin.

Les Misérables (never to be referred to as “Lay Miz” in this review) is set during the French Revolution and follows the trials of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) over a seventeen year period. During that time, Valjean experiences the endurance and integrity of the human spirit as he relentlessly sacrifices his wellbeing for the good of his adopted daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Much of Hugo’s original Romantic vision is simplified both for stage and for screen. All versions, however, do condemn the corruption of society as its technological advances inspire greed that leads to abuse of the working class, desperation, increases in criminal activity, and a justifiable uprising. Most evocative of this progression of devastation is the story of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who when fired from her low-paying factory job is forced to sell her teeth, hair, and body to support her daughter. Hathaway has received praise and criticism for her performance as Fantine. However, the fact remains that while not a traditional Broadway-style singer, what Hathaway lacks in technical singing ability, she more than makes up for in emotional presence. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and touching.

While Hathaway performs her role very well, there truly is not enough here to warrant too much attention. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, turns out a career defining performance that alone makes Les Misérables worth the price of admission. This is Jackman’s movie in every single way. Les Misérables is a “sung-through” musical, which means there is no spoken dialogue; all conversations and speeches are sung. This can prove a challenge for many actors, yet Jackman accomplishes this task expertly with every bit of rawness necessary. Jackman is so good in fact, that he makes it easier to overlook the film’s two most glaring faults: its direction and Russell Crowe.

Tom Hooper has directed a very standard looking and staged feeling musical here. His actors save the film, which in essence is stylistically a spliced together collection of absurdly close-up one shots that go on for several minutes without cutting. To call this minimalism would be vastly understating it. While it can be argued that more aggressive direction may compete with the actors’ performances, it is impossible to look back on the film after viewing it and not feel like an opportunity was missed to make it something more. He does offer a glimpse of creativity with the film’s opening scene as well as his staging of the comic relief number, “Master of the House,” expertly casting Sasha Baron Cohen as Thenardier and Helena Bonhem Carter as his wife.

Additionally, Russell Crowe, who plays Inspector Javert, simply can not hold his own as the film’s second lead. It is painstakingly obvious how hard he is trying, and this perceptibility is deeply distracting. Crowe does not ruin the film, however since the heart wrenching story and incredible music make up for much of the film’s shortcomings. “One Day More” is arguably the film’s most powerful song, and it is sure to stick with audience members well after the credits roll. At the end of the day, Les Misérables is mostly effective, especially to original fans of the musical. Nevertheless, it is mostly an underwhelming film, with occasional glimmers of substance, all of which are a consequence of Hugh Jackman’s powerhouse performance. B-

Hitchcock

Image

Movies about the movies are generally fascinating, and this genre has really never gone out of style. 2012’s best picture Oscar went to The Artist, a film about the emergence of sound in film. Robert Altman’s excellent film The Player satirizes the studio system as a backdrop to a murder mystery. The list of films like this dates back to the origin of the motion picture itself. While a common genre to make, these films often find a smaller niche audience and Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock will be no exception.

Hitchcock opens with a charming homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Anthony Hopkins plays the iconic director, and his bravura for capturing Hitchcock’s eccentricities without appearing overly melodramatic keeps the film afloat through its sprawling middle section (which is curiously similar to the sprawling middle section of the man himself). It can be a double-edged sword to be a director who takes on a film project about a brilliant director. Gervasi’s film is rather unimpressive in its form. It is constructed rather typically and while telling a story about some brilliant editing, it fails to really practice what it preaches. This film is also not a career spanning project; instead, it commences in medias res as the aging director searches for a project that will validate his position as a master of suspense who is not outgrowing his art form. That aforementioned project is 1960’s Psycho.

The battle to get Psycho made is an interesting story and one worthy of the legacy of films about films. Hopkins dispels some of the tainted oddity that surrounds the reputation of Hitchcock by revealing the passion that lies underneath. Additionally, the film showcases his symbiotic relationship with his wife, Alma (Helen Mirran), a previously unsung heroine who put up with a lot and always stood by the flawed auteur. However, the film does tend to be a bit too “inside” for the casual filmgoer. It is almost imperative to have a working knowledge of Psycho to truly enjoy the film. Moreover, there are multiple winks at the audience for those who come in to the theater already knowing some of the behind the scenes stories like Hitchcock’s battle with Bernard Herrmann about the score or what images were truly spliced into the famous shower montage.

Nonetheless, Hitchcock does sail on in a relatively entertaining way. There is a bit of a lull as the film shifts focuses from Hitchcock to Alma’s friendship with Whitfield Cook (Danny Houston). This side-story is pivotal, but it is dwelled on and overly represented. Hitchcock’s infamous curiosity with his leading ladies is explored as Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) arrive on the set. This story of the director at work is much more compelling and deserves to be showcased a bit more than it is. This obsession that Hitchcock had with his lead actresses on set was also examined in HBO’s The Girl, which debuted on the network earlier this year. In that film, Toby Jones plays Hitchcock with a malevolent and sinister air. Hopkins provides a slightly softer, warmer (yet still faintly obtuse) view of his behavior. Hitchcock is far from the comprehensive, authoritative source on the life of its subject. That film is yet to be made and perhaps never will be. However, it is not without its charm and is sure to please fans, although it may fail to create new ones. B

The Weekly DISCussion

In this holiday edition of “The Weekly DISCussion,” The People’s Critic is recommending two films sure to enhance your season!

This week’s Must See DVD of the Week is: Image

It is true that this recommendation is partially because I am trying to not go with an obvious choice.  However, Die Hard is absolutely a movie that is fun to watch around the holidays.  When terrorists take a group of employees hostage during their holiday party, it is up to New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis) to save the day.  Die Hard is responsible for reinventing the action thriller.  With its careful balance of terror, violence, humor, and excitement, Die Hard excels above standard action fare even to the extent of creating an iconic villain in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.  With another film in the successful franchise arriving in 2013, cuddle up with your special someone this season and check out where it all began with 1988’s Die Hard.

Netflix Must Stream of the Week: Image

This year saw director Robert Zemeckis return to live action film making with Flight.  Zemeckis has spent the last eight years of his career filming three separate, innovative motion-capture animated films, the first being 2004’s The Polar Express.  The story surrounds Billy, who is finding it difficult to believe in Santa Claus.  Suddenly, he is whisked away on a magical train to the North Pole where his belief is restored.  While not a perfect movie, The Polar Express manages to capture most of the magic of the beloved children’s book.  The human characters appear somewhat lifeless, but the film does manage to rekindle some of that childish wonder that may have been lost over the years.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

11162899_detThere was once a beloved trilogy. One day, its creator decided a series of prequels were in order, so he directed…Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace. Thus was born mankind’s apprehension and speculation over prequel trilogies. A case is yet to be made for why Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit requires three parts. Nonetheless, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very good film…whew, what a relief!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes place sixty years before Frodo takes his first step towards Mordor. The story is simple this time around, as we return to Middle Earth. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is persuaded, or rather coerced, by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a party of 13 dwarves in their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom. Freeman is very effective as the neurotic, Woody Allen-esque, Bilbo. His nuanced touch to the role gives the audience a very likable and enjoyable central character arch that is only accentuated by our familiarity with him from Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings films. McKellen slips seamlessly back into his gray robes as Gandalf. While Gandalf is always wise and sensible, McKellen portrays him here as slightly less “urgent” given the lessened threat to Middle Earth and existence that occurs in The Hobbit. This lack of urgency translates to the entire film, which may disappoint die-hard Rings fans. There are more scenes in the “silly” category here than in the previous trilogy. Additionally, there is simply a lowered sense of critical doom and immediacy in this storyline. The film’s opening scenes go on for quite a while and while enjoyable, the end result is a slightly bloated film.

These criticisms are certainly legitimate, but they are truly its only faults. The film looks beautiful and lives up to what one would expect from Jackson’s take on the Tolkien mythology; New Zealand should probably be nominated for best supporting actor. The adaptation of Tolkien’s book is developed in such a way that it will lead up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy very nicely. Familiar characters appear along the way, and they are not unnecessary or false. All of them further the story and add something to the film, which is a credit to the host of screenwriters including Guillermo del Toro and Jackson himself. Furthermore, the dwarf plotline is elevated from the childish mood reflected in the novel to one that feels a bit more mature. This is a good decision and while younger kids can enjoy this film (if they have a long attention span), it is clear that the Hobbit films look to maintain a similar tone to the previous films in the series. At the end, there is quite a bit to like about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While it lacks the epic quality and complex narrative of The Lord of the Rings films, the groundwork is set for an excellent companion trilogy that is fun, technically impressive, and brilliantly respectful to fans and film lovers. B+

The Weekly DISCussion

Today is a special Tuesday edition of the Weekly DISCussion, even though The Weekly DISCussion has been posted on three different days in the last three weeks.

Anyway, this week’s Must See DVD of the Week is: Image

After posting last week’s Must Stream of the Week, Out of Sight, I was reminded of another film written and directed by the same screenwriter, 2007’sThe Lookout. The Lookout stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a promising young hockey star, who through some poor decision making and a curve-ball from fate, is critically injured in a car accident that cuts his career short and sends him on a completely different path. Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, who is relegated to working at a bank as a janitor and dealing with a tremendously limiting head injury that affects his memory. Chris is subsequently lured into a heist plot to rob the bank that he works for. This is a very successful and effective thriller, well worth the effort it takes to seek it out.

Netflix Must Stream of the Week: Image

Kevin Smith’s Clerks is a miracle movie, in that it’s a miracle it got made. It is a ridiculously low-budget comedy that puts all of its faith in that hopes that there is a geeky, raunchy audience looking for a dark comedy filled with brilliant dialogue being delivered by bad actors. Turns out this audience exists and has made Kevin Smith a huge success. Clerks is where it all started. The plot is superfluous, following a Quick Stop employee who has to go in on his day off. It utilizes a “day in the life” format as we watch Dante perform menial daily tasks as he interacts with a revolving door of strange characters who populate Smith’s beloved New Jersey. This is a very enjoyable film, and it is fun to go back and see Smith’s cast of favorites in their rookie film. After Clerks, have a geeky Netflix Kevin Smith marathon with Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Season 1 of Comic Book Men.

Lincoln

Lincoln Steven Spielberg is quite possibly America’s most recognizable director. His career spans decades and has produced some of the most memorable films and characters in American cinematic history. Nonetheless, his prominent status has caused skeptics to write him off as superficial, crowd-pleasing, overly melodramatic, and at times corny. These attacks on Spielberg are not always unwarranted, however, his body of work is mostly impeccable and, at times, avant-garde. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 31st film as director, Spielberg focuses on the 16th president’s chaotic battle to pass the 13th amendment. While the battle to make the film was also rigorous, it seems that the final product is worthy of both battles.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again disappears into his role, playing Abraham Lincoln in such a way that it is hard to imagine anyone else capable of playing this historical figure. Day-Lewis plays the part with a quiet confidence. Lincoln’s voice is portrayed with a surprisingly warm, high registered tone. This is apparently, historically accurate and is a nice touch. Spielberg seems to know what he has here and takes a subtler approach from the technical aspect, allowing Day-Lewis and a host of other A-List actors to propel the film. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader are particularly good as Thaddeus Stevens and W.N. Bilbo, respectively. This subtlety from the director’s chair is a good decision, and while Spielberg’s approach is subtle, the film is complex. It doesn’t hurt that Oscar nominees and winners are in dozens of supporting roles, prompting a superior ensemble experience. Writer Tony Kushner adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography expertly without losing any majesty. Kushner’s dialogue is Shakespearean at times and great importance is placed on what is said, not just who is saying it.

Lincoln wisely examines the final few months of the president’s life as he begins his second term. This is not a traditional bio-pic; it separates itself from the routine of that genre and simply tells a great story about a president who happens to live his life through a series of great stories. Lincoln’s political objective is to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives before the inauguration. This plan hinges on swaying lame-duck Democrats who are about to leave office to support his position. The film is truly an allegory for contemporary politics. It is very hard to watch Lincoln and not draw some pretty steep comparisons with the pageantry and stubbornness of today’s political landscape.

Most of Lincoln works very well. Lincoln the storyteller, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the husband, and Lincoln the politician are explored evenly and with merit. The only major flaw comes when the film attempts to examine Lincoln the father. It is a well-known fact that Steven Spielberg has had some father issues. He often directs films with protagonists who have a dysfunctional relationship with their fathers. In Lincoln, this element is investigated through Lincoln’s relationship with his oldest son, Bob (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Unfortunately, this story is immensely under-developed and symbolically vapid. While Lincoln’s home life is deeply important to understanding the man, the misunderstanding between Lincoln and Bob leads to one mildly interesting scene that still would have been mildly interesting even if Bob was not a part of it. Regardless of Bob’s significance, the conflict between father and son seems thrown together compared to the more pressing conflicts in the film, resulting in a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time. All in all, we are given a portrait of a very great man, and we are reminded of what qualities make a man great. A-