Tag Archives: In Theaters

Django Unchained (*** 1/2)

You've got red on you.

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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Moonrise Kingdom (*** 1/2)

In Moonrise Kingdom, writer-director Wes Anderson brings his mannered quirk sensibility to bear on yet another storybook for adults. After meeting at church musical production of the story of Noah’s Ark, emotionally wounded preteens Sam and Suzy begin a romantic correspondence by mail. He, a precocious orphan and accomplished boy scout, and she, a brooding daughter of two lawyers who especially likes fantasy novels, agree to abscond from their respective communities to meet secretly and go on an adventure together. The rest of the film splits its time between their journey and the adults leading the search for the missing children.

The year is 1965, and Suzy and Sam’s homes and adventure are confined to the New England island of New Penzance. Along with the children’s self-initiated liberation from their homes comes the liberation of Anderson’s camera from the angular interior spaces he so often favors. He still clearly takes formalist delight in the organization of the scout camp and the layout of Suzy’s home, but in Moonrise more than ever before does he reveal himself to be an inspired filmographer of land and seascapes. The images have less the dainty dollhouse feel of some of his earlier compositions (see, especially, The Royal Tenenbaums) and more the shape and color of naturalist paintings one might expect to find in the living rooms and foyers of seaside New England homes.

As a result the children’s adventure feels ever more an escape into something wild and beautiful, even as their evident personal wounds and naivete complicate the situation. The film wrings great joys through its romantic celebration of the individual and the need to be deeply understood by another person. Perhaps more interestingly, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola display authorial maturity by thematically balancing that celebration via the reconciliation of individual and community which concerns the latter half of the film. During the church-roof-set climax, law enforcement (Bruce Willis), legal professionals (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and community leaders (Ed Norton) are all working together to save Sam not only from his destructive impulses but also from the bureaucratically inhumane processing threatened by the interest of Social Services (Tilda Swinton). It’s Noah’s Ark full circle, children and adults jumbled together for mutual security in the midst of a storm.

As romantically poignant as the film may be, something was lost for me in its stylized jokiness. Anderon’s visual formalism and deadpan humor have before worked well to heighten the poignancy of his stories. The pacing of Moonrise Kingdom, however, clips by at such an efficient speed that many of the visual cues and one-liners feel like the overstuffed punch-lines of a zany comedy. The material, cleverly and sensitively conceived as it may be, needs more room to breathe than the running time (a flat ninety minutes before the credits roll) really allows. Moonrise, romantic and visually rapturous, feels edited within an inch of its life. It needs more of the dull moments, more of the quiet and mysterious times that make up life and good stories in order to be the romantic adventure it aspires to. Unfortunately those much-need pauses in the film’s momentum seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. In the end, the film left me in awe of its story but emotionally distant from its telling.

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The Expendables 2 (** 1/2)

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Plot summary.

The Expendables 2 begins with a scene familiar to the 80s/90s action films it self-consciously apes: the decrepit alleyways of an anonymous third world country peppered with scrawny non-whites toting shoulder-slung kalashnikovs and blank expressions. The Western muscle shows up, mows down the opposition with superior firepower and rescues the man with a bag on his head being held in a dark room. It’s a big scene, digital blood slinging from countless Asian extras as washed-up action stars flex their muzzle-flare glistening muscles, kill with impunity and wear self-satisfied smirks.

You can feel the nostalgia rush for men like Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren, so far away from their idealpolitik boxing match in Rocky IV, so game to do what they were once celebrated for doing. And it almost works. Ex2 has a kind of slapdash charm, a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks sensibility that it can almost be forgiven for its laziness. It wants us to gleefully get off on its hodgepodge of carnage celebrité, and for parts of the movie I was juiced by its absurd action sequences and winking self-references. It was enough to enjoy the movie and have a good time at the movies, but not enough that its visual, narrative and moral sloppiness weren’t often troubling and distracting.

What’s the plot? Who cares. Somebody needs to be killed for some reason and these guys all get together to do it somewhere with guns and stuff. Explosions. Hey remember Die Hard and Terminator? We were in those movies! Rinse, Repeat.

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Insert Chuck Norris joke.

It’s ultimately a fun movie because all of these movies were always so fundamentally absurd, but they’ve already been sent up so much more effectively and lovingly by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) that this film feels cheap and insulting by comparison. Watch it for the bloody fun, watch out for the queasy feeling you might get from enjoying it.

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