Archive for December 2012

Django Unchained

December 30, 2012

django-unchained-jamie-foxxLike most of his other films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained feels like a summing-up, a resuscitation of forgotten subgenres, another thick volume of The Portable Quentin Tarantino — which, given the writer-director’s penchant for lengthy movies, isn’t quite portable. But that’s okay: the time always flies, and Tarantino gives us a lot of movie for our money. Django Unchained is another historical revenge epic on the order of Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, in which the insulted and injured get bloody satisfaction; in this case, the wronged party is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave passing through antebellum Texas. Django encounters a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and the two men become partners, Django assisting Schultz on various jobs until Schultz decides to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a Mississippi plantation.

Previous Tarantino revengeploitation (Kill Bill, etc.) was set in made-up, stylized worlds, but this movie and Basterds unfold against real-life backdrops of cruelty (and deep collective shame), so Django Unchained has sparked considerable controversy. Some African-Americans take issue with a white filmmaker’s using slavery (not to mention “the n-word”) so freely in service of a popcorn movie. Others find it empowering, as their ancestors also found blaxploitation cathartic in the ’70s. I’ll just say that the movie is structured as a spaghetti-western Niebelungen, in which the dragons this Siegfried must slay are slave owners and all the hillbillies and Uncle Toms who enable them. Django’s journey brings him to Candyland, an elaborate plantation run by the noxiously self-satisfied Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hanging on his master Calvin’s every casually racist word like Gollum is house negro Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who can tell straight away that Django and Schultz aren’t really there to buy “the right nigger” for mandingo fighting.

Trying to catch Broomhilda in a lie, Stephen asks her why he’s scaring her. “Because you’re scary,” she replies, and indeed he is; Jackson atones for many easy Samuel L. Jackson Auto-Pilot performances with a creepy, cobra-like menace. Tarantino has always been an actor’s director, evident here from so many people willing to drop in for tiny roles; at times the movie is an anthology of character actors from exploitation or TV. Foxx’s Django is iconic and stoic except where his beloved Broomhilda is concerned, while Waltz’s Schultz, familiar with violence up to a point, is gradually sickened by seeing firsthand the ruthless machinery of the slave economy. DiCaprio doesn’t overdo Candie’s sadism; in fact, in order to be sadistic you have to have some awareness that what you’re doing is wrong, and Candie, born into his position, sees nothing evil in it. It’s the water he’s always swum in. Someone like Stephen, who should see the evil but overlooks it out of expedience, is far more treacherous.

Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino became a born-again action director, and the many shoot-outs here are staged with over-the-top gusto, with blood spurting and misting and puddling. When we’re supposed to enjoy the brutality, we do; when we’re not (say, when Candie unleashes dogs on an escaped slave), we don’t. Tarantino’s use of violence here seems fair and organic: If you profit from human misery, your death will be a joke to energize the audience. Tarantino’s great theme, hooking into his preoccupation with revenge sagas over the last decade, has always been “Actions have consequences.” When this is applied to America’s guilty past, Django Unchained comes to feel like an act of radicalism, which connects it to Tarantino’s obvious influences here, the sardonically political spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence and the original Django).

Other than showing off the first Django (Franco Nero) in a cameo, Tarantino’s Django shares no particular plot overlap with Corbucci’s, any more than his Inglourious Basterds cribbed its narrative from Enzo Castellari’s. The soundtrack is gratifyingly eclectic and defiantly anachronistic; Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith consort uneasily with Rick Ross and Jim Croce, and somehow it all works. As always, Tarantino is like a kid playing you his favorite albums and movie clips, but as he’s gotten older, with this and Basterds, he seems to have concluded that all his passion and enthusiasm should be put to use for grindhouse-history lessons — that is, history as seen through the filter of grindhouse, not the history of grindhouse, though it’s that too. The movie takes its time and stretches its legs and lets people reveal character through monologues. It also knows when to blow people sky-high for a laugh and when to step back in revulsion when other people who don’t deserve it are butchered. The tension between the two forms of violence may be the key to the movie’s controversy, but it also makes Django Unchained the season’s most vital filmmaking, bringing all of cinema’s manipulative possibilities to bear on a cracking good tale.

Les Miserables

December 23, 2012

Les-Miserables-Anne-Hathaway-1In the first reel or so of Les Miserables, we may be reminded that we don’t often see something like this at the movies these days — big, lavish, epic, period musicals, the kind with ornate and expensive sets. Sadly, we’re still not seeing something like that; the musicals of old used to take time to drink in the set decoration (hey, a lot of money went into it, might as well point a camera at it), but Les Miserables, under the shaky direction of Tom Hooper, gives us a few perfunctory backdrops and then takes the camera right up into the actors’ faces. Hooper is going for a more intimate rendition of the beloved stage musical, and this works only up to a point, that point being when Anne Hathaway is on the screen. Beyond that point, it’s Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe or various other guys belting right in our faces, and it’s sort of assaultive, emphasizing the sausage-fest that this material (as adapted for song, anyway) always was.

As Fantine, musical theater’s favorite emo chick, Hathaway blows away whatever else is supposed to be going on. She’s out of the movie quickly, but she haunts the rest of it (though her absence is sorely felt). Hathaway’s Fantine is in a different movie about how 19th-century France grinds women down, makes a mockery of their dreams and denies them even the slimmest dignity. Hooper’s only wise choice here is to move in close for Fantine’s show-stopper “I Dreamed a Dream” and let Hathaway’s undiluted anguish burn the screen down. This segment of the film, right down to Hathaway’s shorn hair, is a tribute not to stagecraft but to the legendary Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; it’s no easy burden to bear comparison to cinema’s greatest acting work, but Hathaway shoulders it. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises (another big Occupy-flavored epic she walked away with) and the recent, hilarious Funny or Die “sad-off” she did with Samuel L. Jackson, Hathaway’s had quite the year. Les Miserables — or its first half hour, anyway — is worth sitting through just to see the performance that’s probably going to send Hathaway home with the gold next year.

The rest of this thing is a rather slack battle of wills between ex-con turned mayor Jean Valjean (Jackman) and his adversary, rigid Inspector Javert (Crowe). It’s supposed to be Valjean’s story, how he redeems himself by raising Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in safety while dodging Javert and joining in the June Rebellion. But after a while we’re following some colorless rebels, including the drippy Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls in love with Cosette at first sight, breaking the heart of poor Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves him. Far too much of our time is taken up by this weak triangle, and I came to resent that Samantha Barks has more singing time than Anne Hathaway or even Amanda Seyfried; Barks has a fine voice, but she can’t act the songs the way Hathaway or Seyfried do. In any event, the women in this story are only there for the men to protect or mourn or long for.

I pity newcomers to Les Miz, who haven’t seen the musical on stage and might not know (because the movie doesn’t bend over backward to establish it) that Eponine and the bold young Gavroche (destined to be shot by a French soldier) are the children of the scroungy innkeepers the Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, providing welcome comic relief, though their presence turns their scenes into what seem to be Sweeney Todd outtakes). If the Thenardiers have any emotional response to the deaths of their children, we’re not briefed on it. The few action scenes are loud and incoherently staged, and that includes the sword-and-song duel between Valjean and Javert. Tom Hooper might be the worst living director who has previously won an Oscar for directing (The King’s Speech); when he isn’t jamming the camera in his cast’s nostrils, or letting the corner of a building block Samantha Barks’ face for half her dialogue in a scene, he’s making us queasy with handheld shots or, on a few occasions, framing someone off to the side with way too much head room. Hooper’s artsy pomp made me wish for the relatively straightforward pomp and clarity of old Hollywood musicals.

Jackman suffers and endures heroically, and performs with passion, though as the role is conceived he can’t bring any spark or wit to it. Essentially, Valjean is a wind-up good guy. Crowe is, as always, an imposing presence, and he hits the notes, but it seems as though hitting the notes takes all his energy, with none left over for the moral shading Javert probably should have. With mostly cardboard male characters (really, they’ve got one thing they want — freedom or justice), this Les Miz needed the spirit of wronged and seething femaleness to drive it, but once Fantine gives up the ghost so does the movie. I have no doubt that Les Miz is a powerhouse on the stage, but it hasn’t been configured in a way that makes it explode as a movie. Despite the face-invader camerawork, the material feels as remote from us as if we were sitting in the nosebleed seats. It will probably delight worshipers of the musical, but I can’t see it converting any agnostics.

Promised Land

December 16, 2012

Promised LandAs message movies go, the anti-fracking Promised Land (opening December 28) is neither a firebrand nor a puppyish Oscar-chaser. It’s becalmed, downright mellow at times. Unlike other position-paper films like Traffic and Syriana, which packed so many characters and subplots they seemed more like agenda delivery systems than like drama, Promised Land is relatively underpopulated and simple. Steve Taylor (Matt Damon) is a hotshot sales rep from a massive natural-gas company. He swings into rural Pennsylvania, accompanied by senior rep Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to get the townspeople to sign off on drilling on their land. Steve waves lots of (potential) money around: these down-on-their-luck farmers need the cash injection. Things look good for Steve and Sue until an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), wheels into town. Dustin brings stories of other farms, such as his own, that said yes to fracking and sealed their own doom.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay (based on a story Krasinski worked up with novelist Dave Eggers), and it’s consciously non-insulting. The rural people are never hung out to dry as naïve clods or rednecks; many of them, like local teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and gun-shop owner Rob (Titus Welliver), speak with a quick, sardonic wit. We’re never made to feel that the farmers and homeowners need to be protected from their own stupidity by crusading liberals. Steve and Sue are damn good salespeople, making their offer sound like the only sensible thing to do. Some folks, like science teacher Frank (Hal Holbrook), aren’t so sure about that.

The movie is also careful to humanize Steve and Sue, who are not nefarious villains twirling their mustaches but people trying to close a sale. They lie, or at least misrepresent the truth, but so do most salespeople, especially those working for major corporations. I’m not excusing what real-life Steves and Sues do and the human cost of what they do; my point is that the movie isn’t structured to give us someone easy to hate, so there’s some complexity involved. The film allows surprisingly little time for anti-fracking chat; it’s more interested in the community and what’s at stake, and we meet and get to know a number of the people. Director Gus Van Sant and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren dwell on the beauty of the landscapes. We see for ourselves what might be ruined, feel for ourselves the generational ties to the soil. The filmmaking is smooth, unhurried, unassertive. The message isn’t crammed down our throats; it sneaks up on us.

Promised Land is good drama at a time when good drama is scarce at the movies (generally these days we look to TV for that). It’s rarely grim; it flows with the easy-going humor of smart people talking to each other, and that sets the movie’s rhythm, too. The tempo is very rural, laid-back. Steve’s crisis of conscience is established mostly wordlessly. He and Sue both find attractive, funny people to spend time with (when they’d only planned to be in and out of town in a few days). Damon and Krasinski get a lot of comic mileage out of their scenes together; Dustin Noble (the name is a bit much, and is probably meant to be) approaches activism as prankish performance art, like Jim from The Office needling Dwight. But if Steve has unexpected layers to him, so does Dustin. Something he says to Steve — “Do you have what it takes?” — reverberates darkly later on.

I came to Promised Land with a bit of a dutiful heavy step: oh, man, an earnest Hollywood-liberal drama. I’m a lefty myself, but as I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy feeling as if I were in a choir being preached to. I want to be told a good story, spend time with well-written and interesting characters, be surprised. Promised Land checks off all those boxes. It ends up saying nothing more radical than that natural gas may be a decent alternative to oil and coal, but that fracking for it can be a brutal and destructive way to go about getting it, and that short-term windfalls of cash won’t make up for ruining the soil that gives you what’s left of your livelihood. At its base it really only advocates for looking very closely at any offers made to you and anything given to you to sign, and also looking very closely at the people making the offers and handing you the papers, and the corporations behind the people.

Hitchcock

December 9, 2012

HitchcockHitchcock should really be called Reville, since its real hero is Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, whose guidance and creative nudges were invaluable to the great director. In 1959, Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) is casting about for a follow-up to North by Northwest. He is perturbed by charges that his work has become formulaic, or at least predictably “Hitchcockian”; he is bothered by new pretenders to the throne, like Diabolique’s H.G. Clouzot. When Hitchcock hears about Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, he sees an opportunity to make something quick and dirty, a conscious break from his usual elaborate and lavish thrillers. Alma (Helen Mirren) thinks the story is ghastly, but once Hitchcock commits to it, so does she.

Entire books have been written not just about Psycho but about the movie’s notorious shower scene by itself. One of those books, Stephen Rebello’s 1990 standard Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is the basis for Hitchcock, though this film really only lightly touches on Rebello’s subject. It’s more about Hitchcock’s troubles with women — with his wife, who he suspects is carrying on with writing collaborator Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston); with the actresses he hires and obsesses about, including Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). He hires screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) and star Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) after learning of their mother issues, and he is often visited by visions of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin mama’s boy and general sicko whose story inspired Psycho.

The Ed Gein bits seem like pretentious filler, and a lot of Hitchcock feels padded, though it’s only 98 minutes. Scene after scene reiterates the “point” that Hitchcock doesn’t understand women and would be lost without Alma. For all the directing we see him do here, you’d think all he did on the set was channel whatever was bothering him that day, something that fits a hot-blooded master like Martin Scorsese far better than it does one of the coolest formalists in cinema. Hitchcock seems devoted to outing Hitch the diabolical puppetmaster as a big softy at heart. Heaven help us if director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin ever get their hands on Stanley Kubrick.

Anthony Hopkins has obvious fun camping it up in his Hitchcock drag, but that’s all it is; the make-up is rarely persuasive, and since we’re talking about the most recognizable film director in history, a man identifiable by his silhouette, we’re always aware of Hopkins trying to be Hitchcock. (Oddly, Hopkins looked nothing like Richard Nixon yet was more convincing in Nixon.) He and Helen Mirren have an enjoyable, spiky rapport, and Mirren snaps into focus when Alma takes over on the set of Psycho temporarily or shows her knack for editing. Indeed, she seems more creative than Hitchcock, which is why I said the movie should be called Reville. James D’Arcy does a pretty note-perfect Tony Perkins, though Johansson and Biel ring no bells as Leigh and Miles. Why does the movie slather pounds of latex on Hopkins in a gallant but fruitless attempt to Hitchcockize him and then seemingly not bother to look for anyone who looks remotely like Psycho’s female leads?

About halfway through Hitchcock, I began to wish it were called Van Sant and it were about Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated stab at remaking Psycho. At least it wouldn’t have felt as familiar, and Van Sant’s motives for making the movie wouldn’t have been boiled down to the director wanting to control and kill blonde women, or whatever. Hitchcock gestures now and then towards making Hitch out to be a creep — spying on Vera Miles through a peephole in her dressing room — but then backs off from that. A lot of attention is given to Psycho’s pre-production headaches, almost none to its actual making, much less its transgressive qualities. The censors are scandalized by Hitchcock’s decision to show a flushing toilet, so Psycho is retroactively gentled into something only prudes of an innocent era could be shocked by, when in fact it was and still is best understood as a proto-punk middle finger in the face of good taste. (It came out before MPAA ratings, but pick up the DVD or the Blu-ray and you’ll notice it wound up with an R rating — which it got upon its 1984 re-release — despite the nudity and violence being only suggested.) In the end, though, Hitch and Alma live happily ever after, so I suppose that’s all that matters.

This Is 40

December 2, 2012

44692000001_1602507365001_This-is-40-uni-tWho thought it was a good idea to take the two most irritating characters in Knocked Up and devote a two-hour-and-thirteen-minute movie to them? This Is 40, the new dramedy written and directed by Judd Apatow (opening on December 21), follows the squabbling and problems of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), miserably married with two daughters (played by the real-life daughters of Apatow and Mann). Pete’s small record label is tanking, and Debbie’s clothes shop isn’t doing much better. If you think the movie is going to be about the reality of financial hardship in a shaky economy, though, you’re wrong: The couple apparently can still afford iPads, iPhones, and miscellaneous other iProducts for themselves and their kids. I’m a Mac user, but there are times when the film seems like an Apple commercial.

They can also presumably afford to go out to clubs, take a vacation at a fancy hotel, plan a catered 40th birthday party for Pete, and snipe at each other in the comfort of their too-spacious home — all while they’re in the hole for $80,000. But none of this is the point of the movie, which hammers the point that this technology-addicted family can’t communicate. The older daughter spends too much time on Facebook. Pete hides in the bathroom playing Bejeweled on his iPad. The couple also have problems with their fathers: Pete keeps lending money he can ill afford to lend to his dad (Albert Brooks), while Debbie hardly knows her father (John Lithgow), who left when she was eight. Also, Debbie’s sister Alison, one of the leads in Knocked Up, is absent here and never mentioned (however, Ben, Seth Rogen’s character, is referenced); maybe they had a falling out.

Judd Apatow enjoys a reputation for smart, closely observed comedy, a rep I think he earned with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Funny People (I wasn’t as taken with Knocked Up as many). Here, though, he draws out tiresome arguments, with everyone in the house screaming — the movie is shrill. There’s no surprise in any of the conflicts, no shock of recognition, and the occasional reconciliations feel unearned because the rancor that precedes them is so bilious. At many points we feel we’re seeing the end of a marriage, but Apatow keeps shoving the couple away from divorce, perhaps because a Christmastime release with a bummer ending would get fatal word of mouth. Realistically, we don’t see much reason for these two to be together, even for the sake of the kids, who are also irritating to us and to their parents.

Apatow’s films are generally well-cast, and this is no exception; Melissa McCarthy steals the movie as the mother of one of the daughters’ classmates (stick around during the end credits for some primo McCarthy outtakes), and Megan Fox comes through with a warm and human performance as a staffer at Debbie’s shop. I did think it was weird that the only two non-white characters with speaking parts are scam artists of various natures — Apatow’s universe is as white as Woody Allen’s. And the way poor old Graham Parker is used in this movie — a past-it rocker who can barely sell 600-something downloads of his new album, and who finds himself playing to a sparse club crowd and at a birthday party — struck me as insensitive, though maybe Parker enjoyed poking fun at himself, or enjoyed the paycheck.

This Is 40 is about pretty people with pretty problems; this used to be the province of James L. Brooks, who seems to have passed the torch to Apatow. It remains to be seen, though, whether Apatow can write women as compassionately as he can write men — Debbie comes off as a shrew much of the time, and the only halfway likable female character in the movie works part-time as an escort. Pete is no prize himself, nor are any of the other men, so I guess it’s equal-opportunity misanthropy, but 133 minutes is a long time to sit with people you don’t like. In the final reel, the revelations and reconciliations arrive like clockwork, and the couple prepare for a considerable additional financial burden without, apparently, worrying about how they’ll be able to swing it; indeed, the movie ends with them going to see Ryan Adams at a club, which, unless I miss my guess, is not a free event. To quote Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises: “The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.”