My big sit two weeks ago really can't compare to seeing Django Unchained, Les Miz and Zero Dark Thirty back-to-back-to-back. The good news, I guess, is that I saw all three in different theatres so I got some fresh air in-between.
Django Unchained was kind of frustrating to me. The writer/director Quentin Tarantino is an auteur, a student of cinema, a craftsman. He does films that won't be confused with anyone else's. This one is, as many of his often are, a bit wacko in the descriptions. A German bounty hunter in the pre-Civil War south decides to buy a slave, teach him to assist in his job, the slave proves to be a natural with a gun, and then agrees to go to buy the slave's wife. The slave is played by Jamie Foxx, the German by Christoph Waltz who was a deserving Oscar winner for Supporting Actor in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the plantation owner who has Foxx's wife by Leonardo DiCaprio. Quite a cast. Kerry Washington is the wife, and a house slave on the plantation is played by Samuel L. Jackson. There are also a gazillion cameos from Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, Tarantino himself, and more. It's not only a good cast, but it's well taken care of by the director. Everyone is good or very good, except maybe Tarantino himself, but to me the stand-out is Samuel L. Jackson. There's no Samuel L. Jackson in him this time around, he's been doing films for ten or twenty years now by being Samuel L. Jackson, and here he's completely his character and not himself at all.
Technically, the film is brilliant, rich with allusion to cinematic history and yet entirely its own. Music couldn't be used more perfectly, Django has his own theme song that hearkens back to classic Western cinema, the kind of theme song parodies by the F Troop song but here done most subtly. There are spectacular individual shots, one of the family gathered under a large tree for a funeral leaps off the screen. There is rich choreographed pageantry, especially as Waltz and Foxx enter on to a plantation, the parade of their horses or the looks of the slaves. One moment you can be reminded of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, the next of Kubrick, maybe some John Ford or some Scorcese mixed in.
If you're going to see the film, do yourself a favor and see it now in theatres, it's the kind of movie that deserves that. And when you're at the theatre, if you have a choice of screens why not be sure to go to the auditorium with the biggest screen. This is a movie that fills the screen, it wants to grow and expand to fill every square meter the way sea monkeys want to grow when you've poured hot water on them. You could probably teach a film class using just this film and it's direct ancestors as the text.
But alas, all that is good about the film is ultimately being used toward one goal, which is to get us to another Quentin Tarantino gore-fest, it's like a tasting menu with lots of little violent morsels along the way as the odd-numbered courses and bits of cinematic brilliance for the even-numbered courses, and then the dessert is some massive thing, a molten chocolate cake that bleeds blood covered by blood-colored ice cream with bullet sprinkles and hot blood topping and pistol barrels taking the place of the bananas. I haven't even seen every movie written or directed by Tarantino, and I've already seen this in True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Grindhouse, here, Inglourious Basterds, Natural Born Killers, From Dusk till Dawn.
Other great directors like Kubrick and Scorcese have applied their skills to lots of different kinds of movies, some more successful than others, but they've gotten around. I could forgive Tarantino his complete disinterest in moving beyond the bloodbath if he had some niche he was amazingly good at, kind of like the way a James Burrows or a Jay Sandrich could direct a sitcom like nobody's business, but Tarantino is every bit as inconsistent as Scorcese without any compensating ambition.
It's possible to interpret this as Tarantino using his violent ends as a way of sugaring thematic medicine. Django Unchained is a great romance, or it's the first film in decades to look at slavery from the black point of view. Please. In Django Unchained, there's this question DiCaprio asks of why slaves haven't killed their masters, it's a good question wondering about the motivations of the Samuel L. Jackson character to care more for the plantation master than the slave. The film answers this question by having DiCaprio bring a skull out to the dinner table and launch into a discussion of phrenology that would fit right at home in DePalma's Untouchables. But it doesn't give a serious answer to the question, it doesn't for a moment think seriously about that question or any other question related to slavery.
And it is indulgent. Much as I admired the film, beats and scenes could often have been shortened, I didn't need to be sitting in a theatre for three hours (inclusive of coming attractions) for this movie.
Les Miz has gotten a lot of attention for stylistic reasons as well. Most musicals pre-record the songs then have the cast lip sync to their recordings while doing their actual performances. Here, director Tom Hooper (King's Speech, Oscar winner) uses small mikes to record performances actually being filmed, the mics then removed digitally in post-production. He also films most of the numbers in tight close-up. Charles Isherwood, a theatre critic for the NY Times, isn't kidding when he says he had the map of Eddie Redmayne's freckles memorized by the end of the move. Also, he isn't kidding when he says he had to go to the movie twice because he dozed off the first time. I'm just not that big into Les Miz, I saw the musical near the end of its can and can hardly remember a thing about it. The movie, in turn, isn't bad, it's probably a very good adaptation of the musical, but it doesn't elevate it from what it is/was on the stage. The drama's a bit of a mess, there are songs that are memorable for the duration of the show but that disappear very quickly once removed. I didn't care as much for Anne Hathaway's performance as the rest of the world does, in fact it was toward the end of her Dreamed a Dream big solo number that I started my brief slumber during the film. I was most taken in the case with Eddie Redmayne's performance, I was taken with him in Marilyn as well. And Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit is very good as a fellow revolutionary with Redmayne, overall I felt that the cast of young schoolboy revolutionaries was the highlight of the film, but I'm biased. Still and all, Russell Crowe can't sing that well, Hugh Jackman doesn't seem as engaging here as when hosting an award show or even in some of the X-Men movies. The stylistic choices by Tom Hooper work sometimes and not in others. Certainly better choices than the ones in Anna Karenina. The close-ups aren't vertiginous, which some reviews have suggested, they are held for a long time and the film is so consistently in close-up that I never felt like I was zooming in and out, in and out. In the last fifteen or twenty minutes the choice actually pays off quite nicely, and I ended the film much more effected by the closing moments than I would have expected. The main problem I have is that even the best stylistic choice sometimes needs to be used selectively. There are things that you can do on stage that you can't as easily do on film, as an example have multiple characters on stage singing a duet in tandem on different sets. The close-ups work really well when they need to, but in a climactic section when you've got everyone singing right before the barricades are going up and the final battle close to hand you don't get a real sense of that at all. There isn't a lot in the big production number category, which Les Miz should have more of. At least as long movies go, this one needed to be, you can't really take a three hour Broadway musical and make a two hour movie out of it.
Finally, Zero Dark Thirty. This is a film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, with threads that the film might date from early "enhanced interrogation" soon after 9/11 to the actual killing in 2011. I'm not going to use this as an entry point into the torture debate. I'll state quite flatly that I am opposed to torture, that we shouldn't have done it, and I would feel that way whether or not some piece of intel gained from a torture session was helpful to catching bin Laden. Simply put, turn the tables, ask how we would feel if our soldiers were being tortured. But my personal opinion about torture shouldn't cover the appropriateness of its inclusion in this film. It happened. It has to be part of this story, especially since we can't tease out whether or not we needed it to get bin Laden. Even if every last videotape of every last interrogation sentence, enhanced or not, were in the public record, I doubt we'd have crystal clarity. And aside from whether or not torture should be part of it, this just isn't a great film. It's a decent one, but not close to great. As virtues, you get a solid sense of some of the tradecraft, the bits and pieces of taking information and analyzing and inferring, the difficulty of finding bin Laden's courier. The musical score by Alexandre Deplat is one of the years best. But the acting is haphazard. The CIA execs don't have the personality that Bryan Cranston gives in his role in Argo, the only one who comes close is James Gandolfini and even he seems very constrained. A very good actor like Kyle Chandler seems neutered here. Jessica Chastaine as the CIA analyst whose eyes we look through for most of the movie is so single-handedly focused on this one thing that she's ultimately boring, she has that vacant-eyed look of the marine recruits getting haircuts in the early montage in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The only person with any personality that comes thru in the script or direction (by the Hurt Locker team of Mark Boals and Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker was a much better film than this) is the male CIA interrogator who reveals some sense of an internal life within a role that doesn't always allow it.
You don't want to have an Obama impersonator, but if someone wants to tell me that the film does play politics with torture by only choosing to show Obama in a clip decrying and ending the use of torture by the US, which the film strongly implies is a stupid decision, I can't argue. Obama had a role here. The role of invigorating the search for Al Qaeda activists to kill is handed off to some CIA guy who does a fly-by dress-down at the US embassy in Pakistan and Obama doesn't have a role there. The implication of the movie is clearly that the only proper and right decision was to go in and get Osama the way we went in to get him, but that isn't a decision that everyone would have made, and so the film again subtly denies Obama any credit for something that happened on his watch. So, OK, I'm avoiding the torture debate, but I'm arguing with the film's politics anyway.
Finally, this film is too long, and is too indulgent. The movie skips a lot of interesting stuff about the search for bin Laden, it doesn't delve much at all into the planning for the mission to get him, the decisions on what kind of mission to wage, on the training for the mission, we don't even really know that there was a training mock-up. Rather, it detours from its main mission to give us a Forrest Gump kind of history lesson. We see the attacks on the London transit system and other major attacks subsequent to 9-11, though in a bit of historical bias we don't get anything on the Madrid rail bombings. Our lead character is inserted into the bombing of the Pakistan Marriott, the bombing itself has a better argument to be referenced than some to the extent that some of the intelligence gathering might be HQed in the US embassy in Islamabad, but having our lead character in the hotel at the time is a dramatic invention since our lead is a composite, a Hollywood invention. And we spend several long minutes getting to know another character in the embassy just to add emotional resonance to a reenactment of the suicide bombing that took out several CIA agents, including some experts, who were so excited to have a powerful defector that they dropped security procedures at the meeting. This, again, has an argument for inclusion, it shows the foolhardiness of desperation. But coming at the end of a long string of unnecessary diversions into the terrorist timeline, I didn't have any patience for it.
Just as an idle note, I saw Les Miz at the Ziegfeld almost 30 years to the date after going there for the first time, to see Gandhi. A good crowd, half full or more, 30 years ago the place could routinely sell out for an epic movie, these days half full is impressive.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.