Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
Like “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII flick, his latest is yet another twisted take on history. “Django Unchained” is the divisive auteur’s take on the western, which is every bit as hilarious, offbeat and violent as you’d expect a cowboy picture from the guy responsible for “Pulp Fiction” to be. Take that as a recommendation or a warning, depending on your opinion of the filmmaker. Personally, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.
Billed as a “southern,” Tarantino’s 165-minute opus spans pre-Civil War Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi and introduces several iconic characters. Jamie Foxx (atypically understated) plays Django, a slave who comes under the ownership of dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, absolutely electrifying). He is looking to collect a massive reward for killing the Brittle brothers, but only Django can tell him what they look like.
Schultz promises to free Django as soon as they eliminate their targets, and the bounty hunter quickly proves to be a man of his word. However, the two men become friends and decide to partner up in the bounty hunting business. Schultz is in it for the money, but Django is honing his skills in order to find and rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda (the stunning Kerry Washington).
Django’s mission touches Schultz’s heart, so he joins in the quest that leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a particularly brutal slaveholder. They gain access to the compound under the pretense of starting a slave-fighting ring, and everything goes according to plan until they raise the suspicion of Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave. As you’d imagine, the scheme falls apart pretty quickly after that.
Tarantino’s films are always controversial, but “Django Unchained” should divide audiences more than usual due to its incendiary treatment of such a sensitive topic. At the very least, it should spark plenty of conversation. Tarantino responsibly handles the myriad of issues raised by slavery, but still allows moviegoers to experience emotional catharsis through Django’s mission of vengeance. (And let’s face it: if you’re upset over what happens to the bad guys in this flick, we need to have an entirely different kind of chat.)
Still, sensitive viewers should stay far away. The violence is graphic and over-the-top (often comically so), and the language is exceptionally severe since the flick deals with race relations in the Deep South circa 1858. The n-word is used virtually nonstop and the f-bomb is dropped almost as liberally.
Those able to contextualize the provocative material will find plenty to enjoy about “Django Unchained.” Tarantino’s visual style and talent for dialogue remains as magnificent as ever. Numerous lines had me doubled over in laughter (the first hour is practically a comedy, but the tone shifts significantly once Django and Shultz arrive at Candie’s estate). There are also some genuinely breathtaking shots of the American landscape, accompanied by Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name.” Anachronistic, yes, but it’s used splendidly.
As for performances, Tarantino continues to demonstrate his skill for flawless casting. Foxx is phenomenal (though I admit I’m curious what the film would’ve been like with Will Smith, the director’s first choice) and Waltz is even better. He’s probably a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but Schultz is just as much of a main character as Django.
DiCaprio is chilling but funny as the buffoonish Candie, making you laugh and hate him simultaneously, but the true villain of the film is Jackson’s character. After so many years of playing the same kind of guy, Jackson quickly reminds viewers what a fantastic actor he is. Washington isn’t onscreen very much – she serves as a metaphor more than a character – but she radiates strength and power in each of her scenes.
The filmmaker boosts a few other careers as well, packing his movie with dozens of recognizable character actors in brief but memorable roles. When is the last time you saw Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher, Tom Wopat or Lee Horsley on the big screen?
The trailer is a fair representation of what you’re getting with “Django Unchained.” If it’s not for you, the movie won’t be either. But if you’re already a Tarantino fan, his latest is a fantastic Christmas present.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Tom Hooper won a slew of Oscars for “The King’s Speech” in 2010, so the pressure on his next project was always going to be huge. But then he decided to tackle the big screen version of “Les Miserables,” one of the most beloved musicals of all time, and the stakes were upped considerably. For every well-made movie musical like “Dreamgirls” or “Hairspray,” there are a ton of clunkers like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Rock of Ages.”
Fortunately, Hooper’s adaptation of the classic production is mostly a success. He takes a lot of interesting risks and most of them work. However, he also makes some flat-out bizarre directorial choices that left me scratching my head.
Hugh Jackman leads a stellar cast as Jean Valjean, a convict who has spent most of his life in prison for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Not much leniency in 19th-century France, I suppose. After he’s paroled, Valjean decides to start a new life under a new identity, which provokes the wrath of persistent policeman Javert (Russell Crowe).
Years later, he becomes the mayor of a small town and a prominent businessman. After a tragic misunderstanding, one of his factory employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is fired and left to fend for herself on the street. By the time Valjean realizes what has transpired, the woman is beyond help.
However, he vows to care for Fantine’s young daughter, Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child and by Amanda Seyfried as an adult), as if she were his own. The decision has ramifications that stretch over several years and impact the lives of many others, including a young freedom fighter (Eddie Redmayne); the girl (Samantha Barks) in love with him; and a thieving husband and wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).
The most intriguing choice Hooper makes is having all the performers sing live, rather than lip synch to a prerecorded track like most movie musicals. Because most (but definitely not all) of the actors are gifted vocalists, it’s a decision that pays off beautifully. Instead of worrying about matching their lips to the words, the performers can focus more on their emotions in the moment.
Jackman and Barks in particular use the method to wonderful effect. When Jackman sings “Who Am I?” – about being torn between revealing his character’s true identity or remaining in the shadows – you appreciate the pain of his dilemma. When Barks delivers the first few notes of “On My Own,” singing about her unrequited love, the goosebumps pop up almost immediately.
But those two examples are nothing compared to Hathaway’s utterly astounding work as Fantine. In her brief time on screen, she creates a fully-realized character that is believable, sympathetic and absolutely heartbreaking. If you’re not wiping away tears by the end of “I Dreamed a Dream,” then you’re made of stronger stuff than me. I don’t see how anyone beats Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress.
Hooper doesn’t do everything perfectly, though. I’m not sure why he cast Crowe, who doesn’t so much sing as plant his feet and yell to the back wall. He’s perfect for the part in theory, but the choice doesn’t pan out in practice. Cohen and Carter are also miscast, their scenes feeling like they take place in a completely different movie. One second the audience is watching “Les Miserables,” then they’re suddenly in the middle of Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” or something.
The overabundance of extreme close ups in the film bugged me as well. Any time someone is singing, Hooper’s default move is to push the camera up the character’s nose. A cinematic adaptation of a musical is supposed to expand the story’s world beyond the stage. Many of Hooper’s choices do the opposite; they make the film version feel small instead of epic.
Overall, fans of “Les Miserables” have a lot to be thankful for. A big screen version of the musical could’ve been an absolute disaster, but the material translated to the screen fairly well. I definitely had some quibbles, but the power of the story, the performances and the songs is undeniable.