Grade Inflation

If you read me on a regular basis, you may notice that I hand out mostly three and three and a half star reviews. I worry sometimes about not having enough negative reviews on this blog to serve as a control for all the nice stuff that I write. I don’t get paid for doing this, and as a graduate student I have little extra cash. As a result I usually only go to movies I want to see and at a reduced price. So, that’s why there’s a lot of “I basically liked this” reviews and fewer “this is worthless trash” ones.

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Django Unchained (*** 1/2)

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If you heard a movie pitch best summed up by saying, “It’s Shaft in a Peckinpah western set in the slavery years of the South”, you’d be forgiven for laughing it to scorn or deciding to be offended. “Who would want to make such a film?” would be one natural response. “Who could make such a film without horribly trivializing the suffering and injustice of that time?” might be another. The answer to both questions, in my judgment, is Quentin Tarantino.

The latter end of 2012 has already given us one nigh-impeccable slavery-era picture in Lincoln, an unquestionably great film perhaps weakened only by its near exclusive (and by most accounts necessary) focus on the agency of white males. It is a “prestige picture”–restrained, beautiful, moving and noble. Quentin Tarantino’s historical revenge follow-up to Inglorious Basterds is at times beautiful and, yes, moving in its own way (and emotionally wrenching in a way Lincoln was not). Restrained and noble, however–those are for the white boys. Django Unchained is excessively bloody, ridiculous, cocksure and self-consciously witty. And it celebrates from beginning to end a black male agency that leaves no white oppressor unavenged.

The story begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), chained, trudging for miles with other slaves towards an eventual sale at market. This is interrupted by the return to Tarantino World of Christoph Waltz in the role of a German (Dr. King Schultz) working in America as a bounty hunter. That Django can help him with a bounty inspires him to secure his freedom, setting the plot in motion. They ease into a mentor/protege relationship, with Schultz training Django in reading and sharpshooting and the two of them earning several large bounties over a long winter (via montage, of course). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Brunhilde (a gorgeous Kerry Washington), who was sold off to different owners after a joint escape attempt. Why help this black stranger? “I’ve never freed anyone before. I suppose I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.”

Brunhilde now lives and works on the vast Candie plantation, or “Candie Land”, which is overseen by an unctuously cruel Leonardo DiCaprio and his old Uncle Tom house servant played with refreshing nuance and intelligence by Samuel L. Jackson. The majority of the film depicts the protagonists’ efforts to rescue her, which they must accomplish by legal means (purchasing and manumission) for Django and Brunhilde to have a hope of a peaceful future. Framed by a German fable related by the benevolent Schultz, the plot is a self-conscious fusion of mythology and history that seeks to provide a romantic and victorious hero for an oppressed people who had too few.

This is all problematized by Tarantino’s love for the violent vengeance flicks of the 1970’s and our heroes’ occupation as bounty hunters. For the white viewer, Schultz is the closest one has to audience surrogate and moral compass, and by admission his bounty hunting job, like slavery, trades in cash for human bodies. Tarantino is egging us on. His depiction of the worst of slavery (we must assume Django’s horrors only scratch the surface) is edited so as to both spare us and revolt us. It begs the question of whether good men (in the classic Western tradition the film has little use for women except as prizes) can get along in such a world. His most virtuous characters are yet enraged and energized by the violence around them, resulting in a climax of orgiastic arterial geysers intended as cathartic comeuppance for the worst the white man had to offer the black.

I have thought much about my response to this film. I am uncomfortable with eagerly getting in on the vengeance thrill ride, something I more readily participated in when Taratino’s targets were Nazis. I am uncomfortable with implicitly saying, “I feel all the righteous anger of this oppressed people as if I know what it means to be personally affected by their oppression.” In other words, as one never having been the victim of American racism I am hesitant to pretend like I “get it” the way a Black American might. Also, the systemic mass murder of Jews had an end put to it with the force of a World War, whereas despite the Civil War and all the events of Lincoln white-on-black racism is still very much alive in this country and the socioeconomic fallout of slavery continues to affect the black experience in this country in countless toxic ways. It’s a living issue for me in the way that murderous anti-Semitism is not, and that complicated the film for me.

I also found myself, during Django more than any other film by Tarantino, questioning the morality of the director’s viewpoint. Does he wholeheartedly endorse everything Django does? Does he have a healthy dose of humanism (a thin line he danced nimbly in Basterds) in the way he treats his racist villains? Or, as it is for me and no doubt many others, is race still too potent of an issue? Does Tarantino find himself, like his characters, ignoring what seems reasonable in favor of what satisfies his righteous anger?

I am reminded of something the frequent Tarantino-critic Spike Lee said about his incendiary Do the Right Thing, which ends with a violent act of vandalism against whites. Asked whether the vandal–the main character of the film played by himself–had in fact Done the Right Thing, Lee responded, “No person of color has ever asked me that question.” Does Django do the right thing? Tarantino doesn’t seem to care.

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Les Miserables (*** 1/2)

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Les Miserables tells the life of one Jean Valjean, a French commoner imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. After release from incarceration after nineteen years, a future of hopelessness is averted by the surprising graciousness of a priest who refuses to condemn this damaged human. The rest of the story details how ValJean comes to terms with hope and virtue even as the world goes on being cruel. He is pursued relentlessly by a policeman named Javert who has no room for mercy, only the exacting application of the law. The story sets up and follows a clear duality between these two men, one struggling to live by the law of grace, the other by the law of the law. Victor Hugo’s narrative has a clear, refreshing favor for the perspective which exists for the sake of others over and against dehumanizing devotion to abstract principles.

The historical backdrop of the French Revolution which frames the latter half of the film underscores an unpopular idea: the essential connection between the bleeding God of the Christian faith and the bleeding heart of classical liberalism. The rousing spirit of this film and musical derives its power from a wholehearted affirmation of human life and dignity which may have been ignored by the Christian church from time to time (especially so in the time the film is set) but is no less central to the redemptive structure of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. As the prophet Ezekiel insisted to the Israel’s confused exiles, God “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Les Miz takes this idea as its very heart, building Jean ValJean around the very question of what it would do to a man were he to be convinced that every human life has value and attempt to live that way. The story’s happy ending is wrought of a man’s lifetime of hard choices in the direction of selflessness and virtue.

As a Les Miz neophyte, I’m not sure how to judge the spectacle I saw on the screen. Having neither read the book nor seen the stage production, nor a note of the music or word of the lyrics save what was in the trailer and on American Idol I have little to compare it to. I only very recently saw the 1998 non-musical film with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, a movie that works in spite of itself given the fantastic source material. I am getting these caveats off my chest so I can just simply say that I loved Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables with a full heart even if it is cinematically so-so.

Don’t get me wrong–the movie looks good. The sets, the costumes, all the gloomy grime of revolutionary France, it’s all flush with the lived-in details suggestive of realism. My problem here is that musicals by the twisted and necessary logic of their genre are an abstraction from reality (even more so than theater proper or films in general) and this adaptation frequently aims at a contemporary grittiness that I found distracting. I am usually put off by how clean sewer water looks in most television and film, but no such complaint here! It’s disgusting, as is reasonable. But when your narrative structure is this thematically typological and scene after scene you’re going for rousing emotional response the subtlety of the real seems like a tertiary concern. It’s Broadway, kids! Be creative.

Analogous to its visual realism are the performances: powerful, subtle acting from all of the main players with fantastic singing to boot. I had heard that Hugh Jackman could sing, but act? Wow, Wolverine never felt this conflicted about anything. Anne Hathaway is as good as has been said, her “I Dreamed a Dream” a full-body ballad of bruised hope. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises, she’s walked away from two major releases this year stealing the show in a supporting role. It’s a film about the righteous value of a human life and these actors bring it home. What might be lost in a crowded theater is potently evident on the big screen: you’ll be drawn in by the potent drama of their arresting performances. Otherwise you’re just a skulking Javert.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (***)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you’re not familiar with the fantasy epics of J.R.R. Tolkien–sprawling tomes of adventure and apocalypse and even more sprawling tomes of ancient mythos–Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie might be just right for you. It’s been called by some a dreary slog that will only really appeal to hardcore fans, but Jackson’s latest three hour carnival plays out as if Tolkien’s work were being retold by a hyperactive ten year old with a love for swashbuckling fantasy epicness but only a partial memory of the book read to him as a younger child. It’s really fun. It’s an abomination as a work of adapted fiction.

Ostensibly about a fussy bourgeois midget unwittingly caught up in a dragon-slaying adventure, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes every opportunity it can to digress, to add on, to re-invent Tolkien’s wheel. Early on Gandalf remarks that “all the best stories deserve to be embellished”–Jackson clearly believes this. A lot of the extra material has the feeling of that hyperactive ten year old approaching a scene and saying, “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if…” As in Bilbo’s (the fussy bourgeois midget, or hobbit) encounter with three trolls, where a relatively quiet battle of wits from the book is stuffed with battling dwarves and a flashbang appearance from a wizard. The overall effect recalls the visual maximalism of Jackson’s King Kong. It’s a fitting style for the story of an oversized ape, an uncomfortable one for that of an undersized human.

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Martin Freeman, who plays the Hobbit, seems to be the only one who remembers that he’s in an undersized human movie. His performance is as naturalistic as one could hope for–probably the best performance in all of the Tolkien adaptations to date, and at least side-by-side with Viggo Mortensen and Andy Serkis. And he provides the heart of the movie, taking us back to the strong emotional throughline of the series where small and weak creatures do incredibly brave things for virtuous reasons. His explanation to the dwarves as to why he’s continuing on their quest towards the film’s end is particularly moving.

The thing about this movie is that despite its shortcomings in being The Hobbit, it excels at being a rollicking adventure movie in a way that most such releases can only half-heartedly strive for. If overstuffed, it allows itself moments of batshit insanity, such as the expansion of the birdshit-stained forest wizard Radagast the Brown, a mentally unstable Ace Ventura magician with the most absurd means of conveyance in film history (trumping even Neverending Story‘s racing snail). Also see the entire sequence involving the goblin kingdom and their testicle-chinned king (it’s that intentionally revolting).

I saw the film in 3D at 48fps, which is almost as bad as people have been saying. When the visual information becomes sufficiently overloaded the effect works though at the expense of anything recognizable as classical cinematography. On a smaller scale, however, things take on the televisual quality of most BBC productions. Combined with the film’s leisurely pacing, it makes Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seem at times like the first part in the most lavish BBC miniseries ever produced. Also, the shuffling between large and small scale sequences gives the film a jarring visual effect, switching up unexpectedly between the best you’ve ever seen and the worst. It’s ultimately a distraction.

If you love high adventure, wild fantasy and frenzied set pieces then The Hobbit is for you. If you love Tolkien, expect less of him than even Jackson’s other movies provided and consider yourself warned.

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Lincoln (****)

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With certain kinds of subjects, it can be hard to separate out the quality of movies made about them from the relative significance and emotional freight which they carry. Given that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln had me fighting back tears in the first five minutes, it just might be that race in America is one such subject for me. As a critic interested in aesthetics, I have to insist that movies that are righteous in their values may in fact be reprehensible in their quality. Taking on racism or genocide or Jesus does not get you a free pass and, in a better world, would guarantee you a universally higher standard. The world we have, however, celebrates all variety of creative abominations solely for their noble intentions (not least in the Church, Kyrie eleison) and such I feared would be the cultural pressure attending a movie about slavery in an election year with a black president. Unlike so much noble agitprop, however, Lincoln shows the craftsmanship of Spielberg, et al. gelling virtuosically into a wonderful film that is by turns a political procedural, a character study and a historical snapshot.

It is not, in fact, a war movie, despite opening with a few spare minutes of combat that are just enough to register the bloody stage on which the rest of the film will be set. It’s an arrestingly chaotic sequence, shockingly intimate bayonets thrusting and fisticuffs in the mud. Black soldiers are center frame in this sequence, unsubtly underscoring the life and death struggle of which they are the unwilling locus. We stay with them immediately following the initial battle, as we’re introduced to Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) speaking one-on-one with troops after battle. As famous as he is for his speeches, in Lincoln it is face-to-face that he seems more at home. Spielberg and Day-Lewis present us a wily introvert with an iron will and a thousand undercurrents, not a gregarious statesman.

Day-Lewis, a brilliant and notorious method actor (likely much of the inspiration for Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder), turns in yet another intensely mannered performance which avoids calling undue attention to itself. It’s somehow both studied and seemingly effortless. The punctilious method fits the task of depicting this certainly punctilious character. We get Lincoln the pragmatist, the do-whatever-it-takes political workhorse. The film literalizes one of the president’s many metaphors, assuming that we know the “true north” of the situation (slavery is wrong and must end) and immersing us in the deserts and swamps which waylay our heroes on their journey towards the goal. It’s only in the contested, miry thick of it that we are introduced to our most lionized and mythologized national leader.

The crux of the film hinges on the sixteenth president’s decision to push for an amendment to the Constitution that will abolish slavery. Rather than take us through the tired motions of yet another hagiographical biopic replete with infancy and passion narratives, Spielberg wisely chose to make a film about Lincoln-as-leader, a man revealed in the process of doing what it was that makes us keep on remembering him. We don’t need to know where he went to law school or what dating Mary Todd was like, we just want to know what made that iconic bearded beanpole so special. Lincoln charts out a fascinating picture of federal political process during the height of war–the backroom deals, the speechifying, the intractable divisions, the hand-wringing, the pull-no-punches lengths deemed to be necessary means. And it shows us how Abraham Lincoln walked a tightrope through all of them.

I am cynical about politics, and Lincoln kind of Leslie Knope’d me. I am easily distracted and distraught by the darkness of human past and present; Lincoln lit some flickers of hope in my soul. It inspired me. It’s a picture of a hard-nosed man who decided what was right and did what it takes to ensure that it happened. The notion of a political “decider” fell out of vogue this past decade, but Lincoln should stir you with its willful leader and his electrifying appraisal of human dignity. It’s a beautifully composed painting about doing the right thing and a righteous inspiration to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s reminder that you might get shot in the head if you follow in his footsteps.

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