Christmas brings polar-opposites "Django Unchained" and "Les Misérables" to the theater
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's cult-flavored obsessions and his uncanny ability to create unforgettable moments has always resulted in movies that transcend their hybrid genres and become something with startlingly emotional depth and clarity.
At least, that is, until “Django Unchained.”
Although it is set in the Antebellum South during the height of this country’s shameful slavery practices and gleefully revels in the brutality of that period to shocking effect, “Django Unchained” never quite achieves the poignancy of Tarantino’s previous rewriting-history revenge fantasy “Inglourious Basterds.”
That’s not to say that “Django Unchained” isn’t full of terrific performances. It is, especially from Tarantino veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz. As Stephen, a sharp-as-nails plantation house slave, Jackson is electrifying. The scowl is permanently fixed on his face, but having the ear of his master and the cunning to manipulate him, Stephen has more power than anyone in the house.
And three years after winning an Oscar for playing the scary/campy “Jew Hunter” in “Basterds,” Waltz again shows how singularly qualified he is to turn Tarantino’s wordy dialogue into gold with impeccable comic timing. Despite all of his bravado and skills, Waltz gives bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz a surprising amount of tenderness as well.
“Django Unchained” is also full of inspired scenes of sheer lunacy. Only Tarantino would approach such a sensitive subject with the ferociousness of a rabid dog. With key scenes built around the torture, fighting and killing of slaves for amusement, “Django Unchained” is not for the faint of heart. That said, the blunt treatment of slavery throughout the film is enough to spark serious discussion about its lasting effect on the country.
As an entertaining revenge flick with roots in exploitation films and spaghetti westerns, “Django Unchained” succeeds. But it never rises above its genre to become a real, affecting emotional experience. Part of that is pacing. The film feels choppy, and unwieldy transitions are abound as it shifts gears in fits and starts to spotlight the best scenes while keeping forward movement alive. Meanwhile, character development on the part of Django — and the wife he is searching for — is lacking.
Another part of the problem is the lead actor. As Django, Jamie Foxx is uncharacteristically bland. Sure, he’s supposed to be stoic — following in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and other strong, silent types — but he’s a bit of a cipher. There doesn’t seem to be much going on behind his eyes. Perhaps the idea was to make Django stick out by being surrounded by big personalities and performances, but Foxx doesn’t add any weight to the role.
As the long list of former TV/movie stars and b-movie regulars cycle through their supporting roles and cameos, “Django Unchained” does achieve some of those quintessential Tarantino moments of cinematic bliss, which only makes the moments that don’t reach that bliss more frustrating. Something is off about the pacing. The movie is lumpy and doesn’t always unfold with the urgency that it should.
The drawn-out finale is a perfect example. It feels like an experiment in genre expectations, alternately rewarding and subverting them to frustrating effect. It all builds up to a good and bloody showdown, but “Django Unchained” lacks the fully fleshed out emotional experience that Tarantino has been able to pull off with such unlikely frequency before.
The 1980s smash-hit stage musical "Les Misérables" arrives on the big screen in a movie adaptation from director Tom Hooper ("The King’s Speech") that is a punishing display of actorly “raw” emotion, ploddingly staged, and stuck in an endless spin-dry cycle.
Hopper, by way of the stage play by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, reduces Victor Hugo’s expansive 1862 novel about meaningful redemption into a claustrophobic soap opera where characters sing about their connections to one another rather than actually developing them.
In early 19th-century France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) goes from emaciated convict to rehabilitated upperclassman while Javert (Russell Crowe), a former guard, is obsessed with bringing him down. Because you see, in his eyes, people can’t change.
But change Valjean does, swooping in to save the daughter of Fantine, one of his unfortunate factory workers (Anne Hathaway), who creates climax No. 1 of "Les Misérables" about 40 minutes in with her go-for-broke rendition of the play’s iconic pity party “I Dreamed A Dream.” The problem is, we’ve barely spent any time with the woman, and she’s practically begging us for our tears. Later in the film, we are supposed to believe a relationship between Valjean and her daughter (Amanda Seyfried) exists when no proof is found onscreen. Don’t even get me started on the underdeveloped love triangle.
For two and a half hours, "Les Misérables" roughly follows the pattern it set with everything leading up to climax No. 1. Misery. Heartbreak. Melodrama. Extended high note. Manipulative death. Repeat. Except in the second cycle, it adds the Rousing Chorus, which plasters blustery lyrics on top of a bunch of kids playing dress-up in French revolutionary costumes.
Not all movies need to connect emotionally in order to succeed on some level, (see "Django Unchained"), but "Les Misérables" is clearly going for emotion. Unfortunately, Hooper’s idea to make the performances gritty and real backfires completely.
His strategy for infusing an already bombastic and melodramatic stage play with realistic emotion was to have the actors sing on-set (rather than lip-syncing pre-recorded studio tracks as is the standard) and film them in long, unbroken takes — with frequent use of close-ups, handheld camera, and lots of swooping crane shots. Right in their faces. Over and over again.
The cumulative effect is the filmic equivalent of brain freeze. Ice cream tastes good on a hot day, but would you eat an entire gallon? The movie is a continuum of repetitive music (reprises of reprises?) and imagery (“squalid” sets and non-convincing CGI backgrounds), with actors playing as big as possible, even though we are right there next to them. They needn’t shout. We can hear them just fine.
By the time the chorus was chanting, “Black – the night that ends at last!” I was begging for black, for those credits to roll. But they were still a long way off. There’s nothing worse than falling out of a movie completely and not being able to get back into it.
"Les Misérables" did that quicker and more consistently to me than anything else I’ve seen in a while. It is certainly the most alienating movie experience I’ve had all year.## Heading ##