Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a phenomenally entertaining film. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s latest pulp mashup is a splatter-ghetti Western with Germanic mythology blaxploitated. As a sheer piece of filmmaking, I think his previous outing, Inglourious Basterds is better. (Of course, he himself dared to end that movie with the line, “It’s my masterpiece.”) But Django is a different beast, a sort of cry of righteousness against the evils of slavery.

The performances are all excellent. Austrian actor Christophe Waltz is back again as a German, a good one this time, but still a smooth-talker. He frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) because Django can identify three brothers who have a bounty on their heads. And so the two become bounty hunters together, and with Waltz’s tutelage we find that Django is a natural. Their biggest challenge is trying to free Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the evil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in easily his best performance in years).

The movie is not purely entertainment. It asks, “Why don’t the blacks rise up and kill all the whites?” The first answer it gives is phrenological horseshit, common at the time. The movie perhaps also suggests that it is blacks like Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of the house slaves, who were part of the problem. Slavery of all races has been common throughout history (read your Bible) and continues, sadly, to be common. I don’t think the movie captures the real psychology behind it, even if it does do a good job of showing the brutality of the system. As often with Tarantino (I’m thinking of the rape in Kill Bill) you wonder if he doesn’t enjoy the brutality and violence on some level, even as he condemns it.

The way Django ends, it seems just like the first chapter in some new American Legend. Tarantino has said he would like to get into serialized television. I wish he would, and continue this story, and continue to explore the contradictions of the institution that was American slavery.

A note about the format… I saw this movie at the Vista theater, a grand old Egyptian house Tarantino himself has been known frequent. The Vista just got a new Sony 4k digital projector. I have never been sentimental about digital projectors replacing film ones, but when I went to see Skyfall and The Hobbit at the Vista recently, they were digitally projected, and I realized that there was something different about the feel of the movie-going experience there because of it. Tarantino has been outspoken against the digital transition, and I wondered if one of his favorite theaters would be showing his new film in 4k digital. But lo, advertised on the marquee, there it was: “Presented in 35mm”. And so it was. I wonder if this will become a (counter-)trend, advertising film projection as a premium experience?

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HuffPo: Quentin Tarantino, ‘Django Unchained’ Director, Challenged Us To A Debate On A ‘Harebrained’ Plot Point
Gawker: When are white people supposed to laugh during Django?

Les Misérables

A reader’s digest version of Victor Hugo’s great novel, musicalized in operatic fashion, the film Les Misérables generates genuine emotion. For how rushed it often is, skipping over years and whizzing through scenes, it is also tedious at times. Director Tom Hooper and editors Chris Dickens and Melanie Ann Oliver’s ideal for a big emotional number is apparently to sit and hold in a loose closeup for pretty much the entire song while the actors emote.

And emote they do. Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and newcomer Samantha Barks, in particular, kick out the jams. Russell Crowe is much better than I expected, and Amanda Seyfried surprised me too. I think part of the credit goes to the filmmakers, who chose to ‘live mic’ the vocals, on location. This allows a more real, and more present emotional performance to come through, even if some technical musical points are harmed. I don’t really care about that. The songs in this movie, adapted from the classic Broadway musical, are catchy even when a few notes are lost. However, the lyrics, by Herbert Kretzmer, sometimes state the subtext plainly, or even worse, are just stupid. For example, there is a moment when Colette (Amanda Seyfried) is singing about her love for her adopted father Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Her lover, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) interrupts her with a complete non-sequitur about their relationship. Trying to change the subject? Deaf to her concerns?

The whole way this film is staged, handheld gritty, often disgusting (especially the scene where Ann Hathaway’s character becomes a prostitute) and wide-angle distorted phantasmagoria, undercuts the artificiality and theatricality of the story. After all, we are being asked to buy a concatenation of coincidences: characters repeatedly cross paths in various cities and during key events of the French Revolution. The continuous intrusions of the cartoonish Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter) is particularly jarring. They reminded me of how much better I liked Tim Burton’s approach to similarly-operatic material in Sweeney Todd.

As for the film’s Oscar chances, I’d say they are good. It is so handsomely-produced and well-pedigreed that I think a Best Picture nomination is a cinch. In addition to acting awards, it is probably also a Costume Design frontrunner. (Although I much preferred the amazing costumes in Django Unchained.) I’d like to see the Sound Mixing recognized as well, since the combination of live vocals and post-synch music was seamless to my ears, and should be the new gold standard for musicals.

MORE:
Salon: Hollywood is ruining musicals – Disagree with some of this, but interesting analysis
Film.com: Would Helena Bonham-Carter please put on some jeans