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« Great Impressions, Great Comedy: 10th Annual Greatest Night of Comedy A Theatre Within, Open to All: Edie Fake's Memory Palaces »

Column Fri Dec 28 2012

Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Promised Land, Not Fade Away, Parental Guidance & The Big Picture

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Django Unchained

I'm not going to get into a discussion about whether or not the latest offering from writer-director Quentin Tarantino uses the N-word one too many times (or a hundred too many times). I suspect that the word is used as much in the movie (and in the same historical usage) as it was in the time period and place that is portrayed here: the deep South, two years prior to the Civil War. Maybe I'm wrong, and I'll admit it took me a while to get over the shock of hearing the word so many times. But Django Unchained isn't about a word; it's about the slave culture that gave birth to it.

Pay particular attention to the extraordinary performance by Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter who enlists the help of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, as physically and emotionally committed as I've ever seen him in any role). Waltz played a notorious Jew hunter in Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, and in that work, he uttered the word Jew with such venom that it almost burned your ears to hear it. But when Schultz and most other characters use the N-word in Django Unchained, it's simply the word of choice back in the day. Intent is the key, and while there are certainly plenty of characters here that flat out hate blacks across the board, for the most part, the word is not used as hate speech. At least that's what I tell myself to sleep better at night.

Although you can certainly look at Django Unchained as an atypical Western (or more rightly, a Southern), a revenge film or an adventure picture, I saw it as a buddy cop movie in which Django and Schultz are thrown together because Schultz is chasing a pair of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers, and Django is the only person who knows what they look like. Django agrees to help track down the outlaws if Schultz, in turn, agrees to find Django's long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he was separated after the two tried to escape. Django's longing for his beloved consumes his soul, and we get visions of her (both in flashback and in fantasy) as seen through his eyes, which show her as a stunning vision of beauty and the source of his greatest pain. After the Brittles are dispensed with, Schultz realizes that having a freed slave as a partner has its advantages — if only for the shock value, since blacks were not allowed to ride horses at the time — and as the two go in search for Broomhilda, they also collect a few more bounties along the way.

The reason I say the film is a buddy film is that the best moments are when Django and Schultz are simply trotting along, learning from each other. Django is learning everything from how to be cunning to vocabulary words, while Schultz gets some understanding of what it's like for his companion to be seen as something less than human. Schultz is smart enough to use this to their advantage, since very often their targets don't perceive a threat from a man introduced as Schultz's valet. To others, Django is regarded as a free slave who can say and do whatever a white man can, and this angers so many in the south that Schultz can get the upper hand while the criminal is busy trying to contemplate Django. It's a wonderful set of games that the two men play, and watching them set each other up for the next "dead or alive" bounty is a great deal of fun.

The film takes a dramatic shift into the land of the bizarre when we're introduced to Broomhilda's owner, plantation owner and certifiable crazy person Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Through Candie we are introduced to all sorts of Southern traditions, including the almost too extreme to witness Mandingo fighting, where two slaves (of different owners) fight bare-knuckle style in a room while the owners cheer and jeer on. The particular fight featured here is savage stuff, and it's clear that these battles are sometimes fought to the death. There was a time in Django's life where seeing a fight like this might not have phased him, but after his time with Schultz, he's almost too disgusted by the practice to watch. To get his wife, Django and Schultz pose as men looking to purchase a Mandingo fighter from Candie, and the offer intrigues the Candie-man enough to invite the two men into his home.

At the Candie plantation, we meet one of the most despicable characters in any film made in 2012, and Samuel L. Jackson would have it no other way as he portrays Stephen, the balding, white-haired head servant, who sees Django as the ultimate threat to his very existence. He's suspicious of Django and Schultz from the minute they step foot on the property, and he refuses to give the freed slave any manner of respect. Jackson hasn't eaten a character alive quite like this in some time. And in one particular scene, we get a much clearer sense of what the true master-servant relationship is between Stephen and Candie. If Django Unchained has a real villain, it is Stephen, who enjoys his position and life and will do anything to defend it.

I haven't really talked about the violence in Django Unchained, but make no mistake, that's not because there's none to talk about. Quite the contrary, the film is armed to the teeth with all manner of horrific gun wounds, a man torn apart by four horses, whippings, and every kind of brutality. Blood flows and splatters freely, but in the end, it's not among the film's more enduring or memorable aspects. What rules here are the performances, especially from Waltz, Jackson and DiCaprio — which is not to say that Foxx isn't quite good here. It is not his normal approach to any material to be so reserved and stoic, which of course makes it all the more alarming when he cuts loose in fits of murder.

Tarantino's usual filmic references are there in both story, casting and music cues, but in many ways, these touchstones are secondary and less interesting with each passing work. I'm not saying spotting the original Django, Franco Nero, in one scene didn't make me giddy, but in many cases these moments took me out of the film more than they drew me in. The strange array of cameos is also hit (Walton Goggins) and miss (sorry, Jonah Hill). Despite a few bloated sequences toward the middle and very end, Django Unchained spends most of its extended running time coiled tight like a rattlesnake ready to lunge. Sometimes it just makes your heart race a little faster from all of the excitement; other times is strikes you dead on. Either way, this creature is a fucking blast.

Les Misérables

It's difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that some people could walk out of this latest adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables — the first that attempts to transform the musical/opera (with book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and lyrics from Herbert Kretzmer) into film — and complain about there being too many close-ups. Did they watch the movie with their ears plugged? Of course I noticed that director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) seems to favor bringing the camera in rather close proximity to his actors on occasion, but what I got out of that was proof positive that all of the vocals in this outstanding production were recorded live (rather than lip synched). Les Misérables is a sweeping, deeply emotional display, featuring great mountains of quite believable suffering. And if you see it and possess a beating heart, you will inevitably weep openly more than once. And you should embrace that experience with your whole body.

I saw the stage production of Les Mis when I was in college. I was sitting about as far back as you could sit in an immense theater in Chicago, and while I could hear the words clearly, I couldn't see a thing. I went with a female classmate who knew the music backwards and forwards, although she'd never seen the show prior to that night. I enjoyed the show, but felt no compulsion to seek out the soundtrack or see it again. And I realized that when you can't clearly see the faces of the actors, it's sometimes tough to keep the characters straight. But compared to that expansive staging, Hooper's film version makes the stage show seem like a flea circus. The scope of the big-screen Les Misérables feels massive, and it suits the powerful songs and themes of love, obsession and revolution.

The 19th-century story begins with the release of the prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) from prison after years in captivity for stealing bread for his starving loved ones. He has been under the watchful eye of the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who vows to continue watching him during his parole, knowing full well Valjean will not be able to find work and will likely slip up and end back in jail. But Valjean breaks parole and begins a new life in another town where he becomes a wealthy factory owner and much-loved local mayor. When one of his workers, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired for hiding the fact that she has a young daughter, Cosette, she is forced into prostitution so she can continue to send money for the girl's care. Valjean agrees to look after Cosette, but is forced to go back into hiding with Javert hot on his heels.

Jumping ahead to post-French Revolution, the nation is on the brink of the June Rebellion, one of the leaders of which is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who just happens to spot and fall instantly in love with the now grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Meanwhile, watching Marius from afar is Éponine (the magnetic Samantha Barks, the film's sole cast member who actually performed her role onstage as well). In other corners of this conflict, the world remains the same as Javert continues to pursue Valjean for no reason other than his sheer willpower won't allow him to do anything else. I know I'm skipping over major plot elements, but that's probably more than you need to know going in. Needless to say the film doesn't skimp on story or music.

As mentioned earlier, all of the vocals were recorded live, and the result allows for more immediate and emotionally raw performances from everyone. This is no more evident than watching Hathaway's total on-screen meltdown singing "I Dreamed a Dream" through rivers of tears. The impact it had on me was devastating. It helps that everyone sings so well in Les Misérables, with some variations that are made up for by great acting. Although his singing voice is a little rough, it seems appropriate that Crowe sound that way. I also especially liked the way Seyfriend and Redmayne seem to share similar old-timey vocal styles, the kind you might hear singing Cole Porter tunes in the '30s or '40s. A young couple in love should sound like they have their own language. The story's rare instances of levity come courtesy of Msr. and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) as the innkeepers who look after Cosette when she's a little girl until Valjean comes to rescue her. And it goes without saying that Barks' rendering of "On My Own" is simply stellar, although it rightfully feels smaller and more forlorn than what might be required on stage.

Only knowing a couple of the songs well, I went into Les Misérables not sure what I'd be seeing and feeling completely floored by the overwhelming emotion it drew out of me. Technically, the show is an opera since every word is sung (although there are a few tuneless words that come through in the film version), and if it seems strange at first, you get used to it (great singing makes the adjustment easier). Sure, director Hooper makes a few odd camera choices throughout, but nothing can take away from the sheer weight and substance of the source material in the hands (and throats) of some truly gifted performers.

Promised Land

I'm normally all in favor of films that seem to actively defy being slid into a particular genre or category, and certain director Gus Van Sant's latest effort fits that bill (most of his films do). In a lot of ways, Promised Land is a throwback film to works of the 1970s that wore their political agenda on their sleeves. But this movie also wants to be charming and folksy, and for the most part, it succeeds, with the exception of a gross miscalculation of an ending. The topic up for discussion here is the process of fracking, a process natural gas companies use to push their product to the surface and capture it. Companies buy up land rights from mostly lower- and middle-class families (many of them farmers) and pump a bunch of chemicals into the ground, which have been said to seep into the natural wells and aquifers of the area and leach toxins to the surface and into the drinking water. The visual of water coming out of the tap and being lit on fire is unforgettable. The land dies, and with it, the animals that feed off the land.

In a bold move, Promised Land casts Matt Damon as Steve Butler, the natural gas man who comes to a small town with his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) and starts signing up people to give up their land rights for piles of cash — even more money if there's a gas deposit. These folks sure could use the money, and Steve grew up on a farm so he's aware of what these people are going through economically. But a few unexpected obstacles come between Steve and his contracts getting signed. First is a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) who actually knows how to use the internet and does a little digging on the fracking process and its consequences. He causes something of a stir at a town meeting, but that's nothing compared to environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) leading a grassroots campaign to have Steve, Sue and their company thrown right out of town — a town that is now very divided between those who want to protect the land and those who want the payout so they can get the hell out of Dodge. Further complicating things is that Steve starts to fall for Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a local woman who also catches the eye of Dustin. I could have done without the love story, but DeWitt at least makes it palpable.

As strange as it may sound, Promised Land doesn't really have any bad guys — at least not any shown on the screen. Steve honestly believes the current science that fracking is not a proven danger to the community. He wants to do right by these people because he knows where they're coming from. On the other hand, Dustin is a master manipulator. It's as if he knows what Steve's next move is going to be three moves ahead, and he's always there to counter with a better offer or viewpoint. But the real strength of the film is Van Sant's ability to capture little moments that make the town feel authentic. Scenes in the local watering hole or the way most people react to Steve coming to their door to give his pitch. One of my favorite supporting players is Lucas Black as Paul Geary, a guy who is ready to sign on the dotted line and buy a sports car with his check. He has no sense of the long term, and that's kind of the point.

The screenplay for Promised Land was co-written by Damon and Krasinski (based on a story by Dave Eggers), and while their two characters seem custom made for these actors, Krasinski's Dustin has a few surprises in store for everyone. While the idea that corporations don't have the interests of individuals or small towns at heart isn't a new one, the story seems more interested in showing us how, for some, the payout is the only means of survival. The righteous path is a little more difficult to see when these are the stakes. There's a final town meeting scene that threatens to derail the entire film, but thankfully Van Sant has done such a fine job keeping things steady up to that point, I can forgive the downright dopey ending.

It's not my job to dish out box office predictions, but I'm not exactly sure who this film is aimed at or will appeal to. The acting is solid, the banter between Damon and McDormand rises above the material, and the film's ability to capture reality in this type of community is probably its greatest strength. But will anyone care? I hope so, because there's certainly a lot here to appreciate and enjoy. Promised Land is certainly an improvement over Van Sant's last film, Restless, but not quite at the level of Milk. That's still a pretty impressive stage to occupy. If you want to see a film in which the stakes don't feel quite as high (even though they should) and a running time not quite as long, this might fit the bill.

Not Fade Away

The first feature film from "The Sopranos" creator David Chase feels like exactly what it is: a passion project. What it also is is a perfect footnote to a near that was partially devoted to celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones, a band whose American television appearance in 1964 inspired a group of three high school best friends (John Magaro, Jack Huston and Will Brill) living in New Jersey to start a Stones-like rock band in their basements and garages. As it turns out, this band had talent, played the local circuit, and seemed suited (if not ready) for a certain level of success. But like most bands formed in high school or college, something was missing — whether it was timing, inspiration, luck, or any number of elements that work against achieving one's dreams.

I've heard people compare Not Fade Away to the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, but despite the music angle, that doesn't quite work. Hanks' film felt like something of a fairy tale, and at least that band had one hit. The guys in Chase's movie don't quite pull it together, and that gives the film more of a desperate feel, one that is probably very familiar to those who have been thought similar situations. One great element to this story is the presence of unsupportive parents (seemingly a must to any successful rock star). In Not Fade Away, James Gandolfini plays the father of Douglas (Magaro), who clearly wants the best for his son, which he does not see happening if he chooses music as his life's ambition. Gandolfini has the physical presence to come across as threatening, but he never actually follows through on the mild violence he threatens his son with.

Not Fade Away doesn't work without two interconnected pieces: the great period soundtrack and the man who procured it and adds to it, the E Street Band's Steven van Zandt, who is a connoisseur of garage band music and its roots. Van Zandt even contributes a song to the film, which happens to be the first song this fictional band ever writes together. The other borderline startling thing about the film is how much discussion their is of music, both the band's own and that of other bands that they cover. There's a great little scene where Douglas is deconstructing Charlie Watts' work on a Stones' cover of "Not Fade Away." It has nothing to do with what little story there is here, but it feels like it represents about 90 percent of all conversations band members have with each other.

Chase wisely keeps things intimate. The trials and tribulations come from internal riffs, and not, for example, one of the band members getting drafted to go to Vietnam. One guy falls in love and spends too much time with the girlfriend; the original leader of the band is effectively pushed out because his playing isn't progressing with the rest of the group; and family drama is always present. There's also a great deal of humor in Not Fade Away, most of which stems from mishaps at various gigs. I'm particularly happy this film exists because it's a story that never quite been told this way before, and certainly not with this level of attention to detail. There's a final sequence that borders on haunting, and it was in that moment that the film went from very good to great in my mind. I know there are much sexier films out there in the world right now, but take a moment and remember the smaller stories that use real human emotion and passion as their greatest special effect.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Not Fade Away writer-director David Chase.

Parental Guidance

Is there a less inspired filmmaker than Andy Fickman? I'm sure there is, but for the 104 minutes of my life that I'll never get back watching Parental Guidance, I was hard pressed to think of one. If you didn't know better (and I don't), you could almost envision a scenario where Fickman actually hates his audience, but thanks to his somi-hit The Game Plan (with Dwayne Johnson learning he's the father of an 8-year-old girl), I guess he gets to insult us with movie after movie like She's the Man; his re-teaming with The Rock, Race to Witch Mountain; and truly one of the most appalling films in the last five years, You Again.

Parental Guidance isn't offensive (if anything, it's sickeningly sweet) or rip-roaringly dumb. It just sits there being obvious, predictable and trite. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler play two old people, so you can guess the jokes that come flying out of their mouths like a soft bowel movement. Crystal is a baseball announcer for a minor league team, who is fired when the team decides to modernize the franchise. When his daughter (Marisa Tomei) and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) decide to take their first vacation together in years, they call on the grandparents to babysit for the first time. Tomei is something of a modern parent, who doesn't believe in sugar for her kids or criticizing them; while Crystal and Midler are, shock of shocks, old fashioned. Tomei delays leaving on the trip a couple of times because she's petrified to leave her kids with these ancient maniacs.

What follows are antics, plain and simple and dull. Grandpa Artie hates that his grandson's little league team doesn't believe in outs or keeping score properly, and he storms the umpire to make his protests known. He secretly sets up a job interview with ESPN while he's visiting, but it conflicts with a playdate he's supposed to go to with his grandkid, so he drags the kid along with him. What could go wrong? Meanwhile, Grandma Diane is teaching her granddaughter how to wear makeup because she's going to a party at the home of a boy she likes. Buried in the schmaltz are messages about family, and learning to live in the new information age while maintaining a love for old-school things that made us more human and caring.

Parental Guidance is the worst kind of pandering perfectly blended into the worst kind of filmmaking. After such a great run in films like The Wrestler, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Cyrus and even Crazy, Stupid, Love, it's especially sad to see Tomei take such a nosedive into this barrel-scraping comedy. I have some vague recollection of a time when Crystal was better than this. I'm not sure he was ever cutting edge, but at least he was good for a bunch of one-liners to keep the mood light. But he looks like an old lesbian here, his face mangled from an untold number of adjustments. Seriously, if you're even contemplating seeing this movie, slap yourself repeatedly until the thought passes. If you really have the need to see a junky comedy with your grandmother this holiday season, make it The Guilt Trip. At least there are a few laughs in that one. Let's face it, if you've made it this far in the review, you're probably a lost cause at this point. Venture into a theater playing this one at your own peril.

The Big Picture

I have loved French crime dramas since I had an inkling of what they were and what made them different from crime dramas of other right-thinking countries. And while the French versions have changed over the years, they're still alive and well and being made by directors like Eric Lartigau, whose latest work is The Big Picture (which he co-adapted from the novel of the same name by Douglas Kennedy). I'll admit, I began watching this film not knowing a single thing about it, including that a crime was even committed in it. In fact, the way the film begins, it seems like more of an drama of the heart than one that involves an accidental killing. The film centers on Paul Exben (the great Romain Duris) as a young lawyer, who is both immensely successful at his firm (run by his mentor, Anne, played by Catherine Deneuve) and as a husband and father of two young children.

Paul's excessive workload has gotten him in trouble with his wife, Sarah (Marina Foïs), at times. When Sarah attempts to tell Paul about a major change in her life, his enthusiasm and support for her decision leaves a lot to be desired. And for her, it's the final straw. At a neighborhood gathering, Paul embarrasses himself and Sarah when he comes to realize that she is having an affair with neighbor Greg (Eric Ruf), a handsome, free-spirited photojournalist. Soon after, Paul goes to visit his neighbor, who taunts him about the affair, leading to Paul lashing out and accidentally killing him.

At this point, the film takes a series of turns that are both sensical and utterly random, as Paul covers up the murder, makes it seem like Greg left town for a job in a hurry, and fakes his own death (which he wants people to think was a suicide) so that he may begin a new life with a new name, landing in a small community on the Adriatic Sea (I'm pretty sure). In a move that may seem unwise but makes sense in the context of the story, Paul takes on the identity of the dead photographer (photography was also a bit interest of Paul's before the job took over his life), and begins a new career working for the local newspaper and falling for a local woman, Ivana (played by Branka Katic, probably best known to Americans from her role on HBO's "Big Love").

Duris' performance here is fascinating to watch as he simply goes into a melancholic trance once the killing occurs. He knows what he must do to survive and do so without his wife and children paying the price. But he's the architect of his own potential demise by allowing himself to be drawn in by a little bit of fame that his photos bring him, when an art gallery shows an interest in displaying his work. It's easy to get lost in Paul's lonely journey, and we completely understand him wanting to introduce some level of intimacy into his necessarily solitary lifestyle in Montenegro. But we're always keenly aware where the traps are, waiting for him to expose himself just a little too much. The low-level suspense is wonderful, and not surprisingly, we want Paul to succeed in building a new life for himself despite his inadvertent crime. The Big Picture is a film that finds its many strengths in the power of smaller moments. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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