Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Misérables and Django Unchained (with a brief mention of Hyde Park on Hudson)


          The Bigger They Come … The More You Have 
        To Think About Them


                     Review by Ken Burke        Les Misérables


One of the world’s most revered musicals finally comes to the big screen with all sound and fury intact, but this just allows us to better see the shallowness of the endeavor.


                                                                        Django Unchained


With Tarantino you’re always going to get something audacious but it’s up to you as to whether it’s also liberating or atrocious.  Beware of the graphic violence and cruelty.


As I reach the point of my last posted review of 2012 I look back and see what a fascinating year it’s been as Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark has established a viable presence in the blogosphere since Dec. 12, 2011 with our previous 58 postings containing 105 reviews (along with additional mentions of other movies that didn’t get official explorations), some devoted Members of our enterprise, and over 11,000 page views from every inhabited continent, despite the various challenges that this “marvelous” Google BlogSpot platform offers, especially to a computer philistine such as me.  Over the arc of a year’s worth of learning curve I think that I’ve finally gotten about as much as control as I can over the posting process (although some mysteries still elude me, such as figuring out why the review of Flight and The Sessions, posted Nov. 9, 2012, is still showing up as the most recent event on our Google RSS feed—despite the many postings since then, including some compressed-format, quickly-deleted experiments done to alleviate the above problem but now seemingly un-removable from the RSS feed list—which leads, sadly, to the regular explanation of this anomaly at the end of each review since then [see below], or why my attempt to clean up some Comments residue on the Nov. 25, 2012 Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi review resulted in that posting moving to Dec. 28, 2012, requiring another annotation at the head of that one to explain any confusion about the time-shifted references) and hope that the 2013 postings will all have smooth sailing at both ends of the creative process (please let me know if not so that I can correct what’s within my domain and at least explain what isn’t).  With those notations for future historians of this site to contemplate, let’s plunge into the final analyses of 2012, just prior to New Year’s Eve, accompanied by this photo of me and my marvelous wife, Nina Kindblad, from our year-end celebration in 2010 (I know it would be more relevant to include one from this Dec. 31, but that would require the usual tedious multi-hour posting process on New Year’s Day which would interfere with my planned good-luck consumption of black-eyed peas with Nina and the other Guys (Pat and our mentor, Barry Caine [see the December 14, 2012 posting that starts with Hitchcock for more on him], and their equally-wonderful wives) so just make do with this mug shot (better than the one on my driver’s license, I assure you; likewise, this may not be the most photogenic of Nina’s smiles, but I think the champagne was taking effect for both of us) and let’s move on with 2 of the most anticipated films of 2012, both of which have strong Oscar potential despite my reservations about them.

Given its global embrace after the premiere of the English-language version in 1985 (the original stage musical, adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, was written in French with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marck Natel which were translated to English by Herbert Kretzmer), the long-awaited cinematic incarnation of Les Misérables, converted from the theatrical version by Tom Hooper’s team, must be considered one of the most anticipated films of the year, especially for those who have heard for decades of its success on stage in major cities but have never had the opportunity to see a live production. Hooper’s very actively-edited film turns out to be more alive than many would prefer in that he decided to have all of the musical numbers sung while the cameras were rolling rather than have the actors lip-sync to pre-recorded vocals or dubbing in the songs later as are the standard practices with movie musicals (although Woody Allen approximated Hooper’s experiment in 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You, in which the musical numbers were recorded in the standard fashion but the singers—including Allen, Allen Alda, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers do their own vocals, even though many of their less-than-melodic voices give a similar effect to Hooper’s insistence on live performance while filming).  While this proved to be anywhere from acceptable (most of Hugh Jackman’s numbers, given his stage experience, although as San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle points out [see http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Les-Mis-rables-review-noble-experiment-4143930.php] the intimacy of most of his songs, seemingly done in soliloquy fashion as direct address to the audience, doesn’t give him the opportunity to really belt out his best range) to stunning (Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” about lost youth and hopes [more on her below]) for most of the cast, it also forced us to endure major character Javert, voiced frequently throughout the film (with determination if not talent) by gruff Russell Crowe in a manner that ranks right up there with some of the worst star singing ever put to celluloid.  (Among the contenders for me would be Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon [Joshua Logan, 1969] and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! [Phyllida Lloyd, 2008], but my all-time ear-splitter of this type comes from Elizabeth Taylor croaking through Stephen Sondheim’s elegant 1973 “Send in the Clowns” from the movie version of A Little Night Music [Harold Prince, 1977; adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s non-musical 1956 Smiles of a Summer Night].  Give a listen if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POIzZRCOlmc [and it’s likely that my disgust for the otherwise impeccably-talented Taylor is because her version is so flat compared to the angelic Judy Collins on her 1975 album Judith (a 1976 live version with the Boston Pops Orchestra is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCVBxwlxmA0 if you’d like a respite from Taylor and Crowe)]).

However, singing ability of this film’s cast aside (I admit, an odd item to even temporarily disregard for a musical), what I really found lacking in this production has nothing to do with Hooper and his well-produced vehicle (which will likely be up for awards in the technical, art direction, costuming, etc. categories more so than for most of the performances) but everything to do with the narrative itself, which may be suffering from John Carter (Andrew Stanton; review in this blog posted on March 17, 2012) syndrome, where the passionate foundation for the misery that these characters suffer may well have been established in Hugo’s original work a century and a half back (just as John Carter's adventure on Mars was published in the early 20th century by Edgar Rice Burroughs, long before George Lucas' Star Wars franchise, yet the more recent film still appears derivative to contemporary audiences) but there’s been enough of this sort of content since then in other films—from as long ago as at least the 1960s—that I just couldn’t find the emotional connection that I needed for either the suffering of the major characters or the revolutionary spirit that sends almost all of the young rebels to their deaths at the barricades.

Sometime over the last couple of decades I saw an uplifting production of Les Misérables in San Francisco (with the dynamic revolving stage), although the combination of the operatic structure (there is dialogue here but much of the story is presented in song, much more so than the standard movie musical) and my somewhat limited ability to follow the full impact of lyrics upon hearing them for the first time (no, I didn’t own an overplayed copy of the play’s soundtrack, in vinyl, 8-track, or cassette format, because I’m not that much of a musicals lover to begin with although I have been won over by such triumphs of the Modern subgenre as West Side Story, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Chicago—all turned into highly-commendable films [probably in my rarified 4 ½-5 star range if I were reviewing them]) didn’t leave me with as much appreciation for the nuances of the story as for the overall thrust of the driving experience of the score and the passionate performances.  Now that I can easily understand what’s being sung and what the nature of this personal-to-public catalogue of early-19th-century (1815 to 1832) suffering is all about, I have to say that the whole experience is one of touching but tedious tragedies for principals Jean Valjean (Jackman)—unjustly imprisoned for 20 years for minor theft, during which he is dehumanized to being merely “prisoner 24601,” and then constantly on the run after that under assumed identities for breaking parole, despite all of his benevolently-inspired actions—Fantine (Hathaway)—whom we meet when the story jumps to 1823, unjustly forced out of her miserable job into even more miserable prostitution (after selling her hair and some of her teeth) just because she has an illegitimate daughter—and Éponine (Samantha Barks)—whose undying love for Marius (Eddie Redmayne) simply leads to her actually dying in the assault on the hopeless 1832 Occupy-like attempt at rousing Parisian citizens to revolt against the harsh, post-Revolution restored monarchy, even though Marius had rejected her anyway in favor of the un-opposable Helen-of-Troy-like charms of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).  So, in my middlebrow tastes at least, what we have here is a highly dramatized melodrama of unjustified misery (Hugo was certainly right about that, although I’m sure that if I read the original I’d be more moved by these traumatic tragedies) and inspired but unsupported attempts to rouse the overburdened population of one of the world’s great civilizations to action after their first attempts at sustained revolution were thwarted by idealist-turned-emperor Napoleon and his successors.  Maybe I’ve just seen too much human misery in recent years brought on monumental natural or assault-weapon disasters and too much hopeful 2008 “Yes, we can!” rhetoric brought down to earth in the pragmatic 2012 “How close is the cliff?” reality of dysfunctional political stalemates to be able to fully appreciate what’s going on in Les Misérables, but now that I can fully understand what’s going on it just seems like an overblown assault on its audience, an attempt to squeeze out every available teardrop with a relentless collage of sad to sadder suffering.

For me, the whole experience could have been reduced to a well-produced music video of Hathaway’s powerful-but-too-early-in-the-narrative “I Dreamed a Dream” number which you can listen to at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wJ-yzL6MFs (from the original soundtrack album but not with the clip of her singing in the film; an official version will likely be available on YouTube sometime in early 2013, although I found a clumsily pirated one there already) if you’d like to save about 3 hours and a lot of ticket money.  Hathaway’s performance will surely nab her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and possibly a win as well, despite her relatively short time on screen comparing to a much longer, more involved performance from another likely nominee, Helen Hunt for The Sessions (Ben Lewin; reviewed here in the Nov. 9, 2012 posting [the infamous one that stays perched atop the RSS feed despite all the others that have been posted since, resulting in my damn ongoing RSS alert at the end of each review since then).  Possibly Hunt’s Supporting Actress campaign is to avoid running head-on into Best Actress likely-candidates Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) and Naomi Watts for The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona), but in my biased opinion a supporting role is what we have done very well by Hathaway in Les Mis (and Seyfried for that matter, although I think her chances for competing against Hathaway look slim with Hunt, Sally Field, Amy Adams, and maybe even Ann Dowd as other likely contenders).  Hathaway may not walk away with honors just because of one powerful song (although Judi Dench managed to get her Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Queen Elizabeth for Shakespeare in Love [John Madden, 1998] with a very modest amount of screen time so anything’s possible with Academy voters), but I’d recommend just listening to her at the link above and then looking over some trailer preview scenes (see suggestions at the end of this review) which will probably be just as effective as slogging through the whole experience at your local theatre unless you’re a diehard fan of the story which means you probably stopped reading at least one paragraph ago (or will soon) as you were deleting this blog from your iGoogle alerts.

For those of you who might be willing to just let this review suffice (unless Les Mis pulls in enough Oscar nominations that you feel you just have to see it for yourself before late February), I’ll say a bit more about the second half of the film (which clearly feels like a second act on stage, so faithful is this adaptation to the original) which is where we shift from the personal sufferings of Valjean and Fantine, constantly exacerbated by the dogged determination of policeman Javert (whose cruelty seems more a function of his blind devotion to the letter of the law than any vicious character flaw—he’s just convinced that law enforcement requires a strict interpretation rather than any individual judgments, so much so that when he allows Valjean a reprieve late in the story, to balance the ex-con’s decision not to kill Javert when he had the easy chance, Javert then takes his own life in remorse over his “dereliction of duty”  [Oops!  Forgot to include a Spoiler Alert there, but, hey, this is just for those of you who are more inclined to read than to watch anyway, right?  No?  Well, sorry.]), to the larger concept of “I’m-as-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” citizens standing up to the oppression that has been dragging on for over 15 years since this post-French Revolution story began.  Despite the wide-spread poverty and indifference from Les Mis’ version of the upper 1%, though, the revolt comes only from the college-student-type segment of society, providing a somber sociopolitical lesson in talk unsupported by action which could easily ring true for contemporary audiences and which is summed up in what is essentially the Act One finale in the rousing “One Day More” ensemble song (available from the celebrated 2010 25th Anniversary London stage production at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpGA_VRc1Ro; I’m amazed there aren’t clips from the film pirated yet but just give it time … maybe another 5 minutes).  However, here’s another place where I’ve seen it all before—including structure and mid-film early climax—in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1961 multi-Oscar winning (an almost-record 10 total, including Picture, Director[s], Supporting Actress Rita Moreno, Supporting Actor George Chakiris, Sound, and Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture) West Side Story when Maria, Tony, the Jets, and the Sharks all collide with a powerful, juxtaposed multi-lyric version of “Tonight” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpaS2v-r7cE, although this clip contains another aspect of musical actors on film, that of dubbing in voices for those who are better thespians than singers as is the case here where Natalie Wood’s vocals are actually from the pipes of Marni Nixon [who also dubs for Rita Marino in this clip as well as for Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), Deborah Kerr in The King and I (Walter Lang, 1956), and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1954), among others]), which serves as a model for this same tactic in Les Mis, both on stage and in film.

David  The Death of Marat  1793
For that matter, you can also go back to the 1960s to find both a play and its adapted film that equally—if not more so—captures the freedom-loving spirit of Les Mis, except that the focus is on the first, famous French Revolution in The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (usually shortened to just Marat/Sade) written in German by Peter Weiss in 1963, made into an English-language film directed by Peter Brook and written by Adrian Mitchell in 1967. Here, the main story takes place on July 13, 1808, after Napoleon’s “order” has been imposed (but before the restoration of the monarchy by 1815 in Les Mis), with a play-within-the-play/film directed by de Sade set in the middle of 1793, during the chaos of the Revolution, culminating in the assassination of Marat on July 13 of that year, then quickly bringing the audience up to the “current” 1808 date.  Thus, in Marat/Sade you have the same theme as in Les Mis of unjustified oppression occurring within the context of a “stable” society, requiring a need for resistance even if undertaken by characters doomed to failure.  (The oppression is too entrenched, the downtrodden too nullified in Les Mis; the “revolutionaries” are already overt prisoners in Marat/Sade.  To continue my praise of Judy Collins above, I’ll further note that some of the songs from this Brechtian-styled Marat/Sade were recorded as a 5:33 medley by Judy Collins on her 1966 album In My Life, for me capturing in a more effective manner the similar themes of longing for love and freedom constantly denied as are explored in a more bombastic but generally not as effective musical manner in Les Mis; Give a listen to Judy if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfERQnCbQ7E and decide for yourself).  I know that I’ll never convince any diehard fans of Les Misérables—if any are still reading by now—that they can get a more complex but just as artistically well-realized (and considerably shorter) version of these narrative elements from Marat/Sade, but I’ll make the offer anyway and see if I get any takers.

One final line of exploration regarding Les Mis refers metaphorically more to “undertakers” than “takers,” or more specifically, gravediggers, as in Shakespeare’s use of the gravedigger as comic relief toward the end of Hamlet and whether that device plays out effectively in a narrative so marked otherwise by tragedy.  When the character is played by a comedian, as was done by director Kenneth Branagh when casting Billy Crystal in this role in his otherwise magnificent 1996 cinematic rendition of the fall of the Court of Denmark, it becomes too obvious, detracting from the flow of the story and rejecting the ability of a dramatic actor to effectively deliver lines written with comic intent.  So too, for me in Les Mis, do we have the intrusion of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers, the unscrupulous couple whom we first meet as the guardians of Cosette in her childhood but who keep popping up throughout the rest of the story.  However, in this case I don’t fault Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter (both of whom perform their roles with effective gusto) as much as I do the various authors of Les Mis, who apparently felt the need to add some comic relief to their own overly-tragic tale of the endlessly-downtrodden Parisians, giving these scoundrels not only their own showcase number with the flamboyant “Master of the House” but also dragging them back into other scenes where their presence isn’t necessary except as a device to further convince Marius and Cosette of the moral superiority of Valjean, just before he’s escorted to heaven by the welcoming spirit of the just-before-the-last-curtain-return-appearance of Fantine.  I understand that many successful plays begin in a more humorous mode before getting down to serious business or insert some comedy later on into otherwise somber activities just to relieve the tension a bit, but I think that these money-sucking clowns are an extended distraction that just makes the whole concept of Les Mis seem even more arbitrary as a constructed entertainment vehicle rather than an organic story, although I realize that the Thénardiers are from the novel (just as are all the main points of both the play and the film) and have narrative connections as the parents of the more virtuous Éponine and as the verification of Valjean’s life-saving act toward Marius, yet I can’t help but wonder if they are as buffoonish in Hugo’s version as they’ve become since (I guess I could read the novel and find out but that would threaten my identity as an illiterate cinephile so I’d better not risk it).  Anyway, they just epitomize for me everything that feels overdone (such as the final shots of Valjean seeing all the dead from the story united at the even-larger version of the barricade, singing in unison) and calculated (Valjean’s final life lesson:  “To love another person is to see the face of God”) about Les Misérables, no matter how beloved it may be for others (and for me on stage, but maybe that experience was like my childhood fascination with the Latin mass of Catholicism where it all seemed exotic and satisfying in its ritual until after the “modernizing reformation” of the 1960s when I finally figured out what was going on and drifted away slowly but surely from the church).

There won’t be anything slow about your reaction to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, although you will surely take a stand for or against it because it’s not the kind of film that elicits a tepid response (there have even been discussions about why such a violent film is being marketed as Christmas entertainment [its L.A. premiere was cancelled out of respect for the lives lost in the Newtown, CT massacre just a few days prior], as explored by Angela Hill in the Oakland Tribune, with a comment from me, at http://www.insidebayarea.com/ci_22241271/nothing-says-christmas-like-quentin-tarantino?IADID=Search-www.insidebayarea.com-www.insidebayarea.com), from its immersion in the pre-Civil War culture of slavery to the graphically-bloody manner in which slavers are dispatched by a German dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and an ex-slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), both of whom have foregone their previous existences to become bounty hunters whose modus operandi never includes the latter option within the “Wanted, Dead or Alive” charge against their hunted victims.  Just like Tarantino’s revisionist World War II spectacle from 2009, Inglourious Basterds (which may not be as much of a conceit in its spelling as it’s interpreted to be; I’ve got a copy of the script as written by the director and I can promise you that on grammar and spelling alone it wouldn’t be well-received by a 9th-grade English teacher, but I’m sure that at this point in his career Tarantino’s projects are coveted more for their monetary potential than for their linguistic precision—although his dialogue is usually much more hypnotizing and melodic when spoken by the right actors than when read on the page), Django Unchained plays fast and loose with history and other realities.  (Example:  In a scene clearly intended to show the stupidity of the Tennessee racists who want to lynch Schultz and Django because of the former’s “n****r-lovin’ ” attitude and the latter’s “n****r” existence—especially as a freed slave seemingly serving as a valet for Schultz before it’s revealed that he’s also a gunman for hire—these Klan-like goons [including a cameo from Jonah Hill] almost have to abort their mission because their masks have such poorly-cut eyeholes, yet unless they are vigilantes ahead of their times [unlikely, given their cumulative I.Q., which seems to equate to that of the average garden slug] their whole Klan-identity is at least 7 years too soon, given that the KKK didn’t emerge until after the Civil War, yet this film is set in 1858.  Similarly, when we first meet our protagonists they are traveling at night through a countryside that is later identified as being “at least 37 miles from the nearest town,” yet when a slaver injured by Schultz begs his slaves to take him to a doctor, that “nearest town” is identified as El Paso, the farthest west point of Texas, just before the generally non-slave New Mexico territory [where Blacks were concerned, although there was rampant slavery of Native Americans there], so why any of these guys are seemingly traveling east just barely into Texas [in a landscape that looks nothing like the wilderness near El Paso] is anyone’s guess and probably mattered not a whit to Tarantino, who just borrows and conjures whatever he needs from the factual world in order to restructure a parallel universe that plays out more like he’d prefer that it would.)

Clearly, the point of Django Unchained is to use history as a flexible launching pad for how Tarantino’s narrative needs to unfold, so as to right grievous wrongs in the 19th century U.S. South just as he imaginatively did with 20th century Germany in his last outing with the assassination of Hitler and his upper-echelon associates (a film that worked well for Waltz, as he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the role of ice-cold Nazi Col. Hans Landa, then went on to become a regular presence in American/American-like, films [including Francis Lawrence’s 2011 Water for Elephants and Roman Polanski’s 2011 Carnage]).  Schultz, and especially Django, can’t make up for all the horrors of hundreds of years of American slavery of Africans, but over the course of almost 3 hours (just like Les Mis, so if you’re going to see it take that restroom break beforehand) they do their damnest to try, with a body count that takes a serious toll on the slaver population.

The concept and brutal reality of slavery are cruel enough, but Tarantino wants to personalize the unhooded faces of Southern racists so he comes up with some real doozies, including:  (1) Don Johnson as Big Daddy, the owner of the Tennessee plantation where Schultz and Django wipe out the bad-ass Brittle brothers to settle their first quest (this grim trio not only have bounty appeal for the good doctor but revenge appeal for Django because of the way that one of them mercilessly whipped his wife, Broomhilda [Kerry Washington, whose character’s name is a mispronunciation of the Norse/German mythological figure, Brunhilde, a mighty female warrior but one put in captivity and rescued by the equally great warrior Siegfried, setting up the intentional metaphor for the attempted rescue of Django’s long-lost wife in this film], after an escape attempt from their former plantation, before they were sold separately)—he dies after his proto-Klan attack is thwarted by concealed dynamite, then Django uses pin-point rifle accuracy, even in the dark as his prey is escaping on horseback, to terminate this vicious foe; (2) Walton Goggins as Billy Crash, the chief baddie henchman at our story’s final planation who comes within a hair’s breadth (so to speak) of turning Django into a soprano before his own genitals are shot out by Django at the film’s climax; and (3) the worst of the worst, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the abominably evil owner of the horrible Candieland plantation (Crash’s home base), where Broomhilda now resides as a frequently-tortured house servant (who keeps trying to escape but to no avail) and a legion of muscular combat slaves are forced to participate in Candie’s “Mandingo” fight-to-the-death games (named by Tarantino for the Blaxploitation “classic” [reviled by many but praised by others, including Tarantino] Mandingo [Kyle Onstott, 1975], which featured such brutality, although this is another of Tarantino’s ahistorical inclusions intended to heighten our perception of the grotesque nature of slavery, rather than sanitizing it as so many Hollywood classics like Gone with the Wind [Victor Fleming, 1939] have done).  The second “heroic” quest (after the termination of the Brittles) in Django Unchained is to rescue Broomhilda (or Hilde as she’s more commonly known) from Candie, but that proves to be more difficult than expected, resulting in two climatic assaults on Candie, his henchmen, and, ultimately, his sister, Laura Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), the plantation house (more dynamite), and Stephen, the most evil, manipulative “house n****r” (I’m carefully using the n-word in quotes from the film, where it’s tossed around like any other noun, as was the practice of the time but not one I care to perpetuate, lest I find an irate Django standing at my front door some day) you could ever imagine, played by—of all people—Samuel L. Jackson.  In interviews Jackson gives the impression that he welcomes the role because of its atrocity and Tarantino's courage in presenting such a politically-incorrect but still historically-valid character.

(OK, this is getting heavy; let's take a well-deserved break.  [Actually, I'm just trying to put in a rationalization for the fat format gap before the next paragraph, which I can't seem to get rid of no matter what I try (sound familiar?), but this is a long review so maybe it's just BlogSpot telling me that it's time to give my loyal readers a rest.  How thoughtful, oh ye great gods of cyberspace!])



 “Monsieur” Candie (as he prefers to be called, even though he can’t speak a word of French) is clearly intended to be the epitome of all that was wrong with the Southern white rationalizations about slavery (including the bogus “science” of phrenology that claims to show intelligence in the Caucasian skull rather than the supposed subservience in the African one [the so-called explanation of why the slaves never overpowered their outnumbered masters]), but Stephen is possibly even more evil in that he’s the enabler of Candieland, playing up to the “master’s” sympathies, undermining any sense of Black dignity in his fellow slaves, and constantly attempting to insure his own comfy existence by alternately kowtowing to Candie and treating him as an equal, even calling him “Calvin” and indulging in the house brandy while revealing the clandestine plan of Schultz and Django to free Hilde, thereby setting in motion the twin slaughter scenes that leave Candieland with blood-soaked walls before being reduced to ashes and bitter memories.  Jackson throws himself into this sickening role with the same relish that he brings to all of his screen work (including previous stints with Tarantino in Pulp Fiction [1994], Jackie Brown [1997], and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 [2004]), so that he seems perfectly comfortable in a dinner environment at Candieland where Calvin, Schultz, and Django discuss the various merits of Candie’s fighters as if they were prize bulls rather than humans, while the Black servant women silently surround the table, awaiting any need of their oblivious masters (Foxx plays into this charade quite well also, taking on the role of a cruel free Black, willing to treat his fellow African/African-Americans as the inferior creatures assumed by Candie, although his fierce outward act almost shatters a couple of times when demeaning remarks are made about Hilde, directly in her presence).  Both Jackson and Foxx seem quite secure in their roles in this troublesome film and have been strong defenders of Tarantino against the rough criticism he’s received from many, including Spike Lee, for his cavalier treatment of the loaded topic of slavery and its heritage, the fundamental question for many about whether to even view this film or not, assuming that such potential viewers haven’t already recused themselves because of the constant bloodshed throughout the film (bloodbaths would be a better term because Tarantino’s dead don’t just bleed quickly and demurely; whenever someone is shot they usually spew a geyser of red liquid that saturates anything within 10 feet)—which still doesn’t begin to prepare you for the rapid-fire slaughter that Django inflicts on the inhabitants of Candieland both before and after his seeming final capture to be sent off to working death in some local mines—or overt cruelty, either shown (the whipping of Broomhilda, which Washington reportedly actually endured in order to better bond with the terrible heritage from her ancestors) or mostly implied (the grotesque death of beaten-down-so-now-valueless fighter slave D’Artagnan [Ato Essandoh], torn apart by vicious dogs).

What has Tarantino created with this strange hybrid of the historical reality of slavery; a rejection of this inhuman institution’s tenets achieved by retaliatory brutality from our often-amoral bounty hunters, who are operating as if in one of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” where the mythological nobility of the Old West is replaced by the aggressive violence that was more characteristic of the “taming” of this wilderness (and the massacre of most of its original inhabitants); and a sense of satire that dares to attack slavery partially through laughter in a manner reminiscent of Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles (for a simple illustration of the mix of “spaghetti” and satire here take a listen to Django Unchained’s title song at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MID95tn6BCw to hear how it’s a mix of Ennio Morricone’s theme music from Sergio Leone’s 1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [original tune at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFa1-kciCb4] and Blazing Saddles’ title song, sung by Frankie Lane [at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-HRbsejTyw], from Brooks’ blatant attack on racism in both the Old West and contemporary America in the mid-‘70s).  As with the Nazi atrocities in Inglourious Basterds which are treated as real horrors but horrors that can be overcome in a more decisive manner in Tarantino’s alternate universe, can we begin to eradicate the largely unaddressed residue of slavery in our present society by demolishing it with a combination of brutal revenge attacks on the horrid perpetrators of our national atrocity (written into our very Constitution by so-called “freedom-loving patriots”) and a depiction of it as not only inhuman in its cruelty but ridiculous as it was justified and perpetuated by rich but ignorant Southerners who were almost too stupid to realize the horror they were inflicting upon their fellow humans (as well as too stupid to even realize that these African eternally-indentured laborers were fellow humans rather than some inferior species)?  For some in our society, Tarantino has opened a long-silent taboo by depicting in an unvarnished manner the physical cruelty that was slavery’s reality, forcing us to acknowledge that we don’t yet live in a post-racist world (despite our Black President, or more accurately half-Black [an apt metaphor about the future of our increasingly mixed society where no one group provides the dominant presence]) and that the raw wounds of the centuries of slavery that brought Africans unwillingly into American history and culture have not healed, nor will they ever leave our repressed consciousness until we somehow address the hatred and inequities that still pollute our collective lives.  Others will be offended by what is perceived as trivializing the despicable institution that once tore our nation apart (see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for some perspective on this, but still told almost entirely from a white viewpoint) and presenting slave owners as buffoons rather than conniving, homicidal racists, therefore making it easier to dismiss them as unworthy of serious discussion and unconnected to more “enlightened” attitudes of today.

As I said going into the explication of this film, it’s too bold and too intentionally atrocious to approach with a neutral attitude so its value or worthlessness will be a matter of fiercely-independent opinion.  In Inglourious Basterds Tarantino was able to bring closure to WW II’s atrocities by trapping and killing Hitler and his high command so even though it was a fanciful (but brutal, of course) alternative reality it at least had a sense of solving a huge problem once and for all (not the larger plague of anti-Semitism but the specific manifestation of that in Hitler’s Holocaust).  However, in Django Unchained he brings closure to a few specific racist overlords, allowing Django and Broomhilda to ride away as free Blacks from the ruins of Candieland, but that hardly makes a dent in the continuing plantations throughout the South which our lone bounty hunter has no chance of eradicating on his own (again, I know this is presented as a “spaghetti western” so I understand that Django must follow Clint Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name pattern and do almost all of the destruction by himself, but it was sad to see that Candie’s fighter slave squad never had a chance to join in with the retribution, despite the cruelty they had been forced to endure and contribute to).  There’s a strong sense of grim satisfaction in the punishment that Django dishes out to his direct tormenters, but the nature of this Old West-style of needed action followed by disappearance of the hero into the wilderness doesn’t allow the finality enjoyed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in Basterds where the war will definitely end and Col. Landa will live out his days as a U.S. citizen forever branded with a swastika carved on his face.  I understand why Black audiences (and their empathizers) today would cheer the destruction of Candieland, but unless Django and Hilde are headed into the western territories free of slavery’s confinement they won’t last long in a South full of lynch mobs, no matter what freedom papers they’re able to show, unless Tarantino has more revisionist history to offer on their behalf.

For me, Django Unchained is a very despicable yet liberating experience.  I cringe at knowing that some of my ancestors were likely akin to the Big Daddies, Billy Crashes, and Calvin Candies depicted in this film, just as I cringe that when I grew up in Texas I was still surrounded by people whose attitudes hadn’t changed since the Civil War, the most militant of whom were willing to be actual Klansmen killing African-American citizens during the Civil Rights era simply because these criminals hadn’t yet distanced themselves from that inbred culture of hate of anything different from themselves (Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, and women of any sort weren’t exempt from their hatred either—unless the haters were women, a very distinct possibility in the world that I’ve come from).  So, in that sense I cheer when assholes such as these are shot down brutally in Django Unchained because I participate—vicariously, I acknowledge, because I’m as Northern European as anyone I detested in this film (although a DNA test revealed that 43% of me is South Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, and Southeast European, but I was raised as a honkie and that’s what I identify with, in a constantly negotiated manner)—in a desire to see them suffer in a manner akin to the suffering they have caused, whether in the 19th century or this afternoon.  Yet, I also find myself disgusted not just by the violence perpetrated on the slaves in Tarantino’s film but also by the revenge violence, that used in bitter, bloody retaliation against the beasts who would assume that others are inferior simply because of their appearance and/or heritage.  There is just so much cruelty in all directions in this film—a stylistic device and fascination of the writer-director, I understand from having seen so many of his works—that I’m repulsed by the revenge as well, not because it’s not deserved but because it contributes to the dehumanization that it seeks to expose and attack.  Many other critics have lauded this film because of its bold depictions of normally unspeakable subject matter; to some degree, I agree, but I’m also troubled that in a society where so many innocent people are still subject to harm from random acts of violence, including violent death from rampaging assault-weapon wielders (now I’ve lost all of the Second Amendment defenders who were still around after I trashed Les Misérables), that we find ourselves opening a needed race dialogue with a quasi-humorous depiction of a race war where the ground of several states is fertilized with spewing blood from all concerned (including the slaves beaten to death by Candie’s fighters, who had no choice but to kill their opponents lest they be killed themselves).  Tarantino’s very consistent and outspoken in what he challengingly puts on a movie screen; for that I admire him and acknowledge that much of what I see in Django Unchained is black (pardon the pun) humor.  But to praise this cruel blood sport as one of 2012's best films is not something I’m prepared to do, although from a pure-skill-in-acting standpoint I wouldn’t object to Oscar nominations for Foxx, Waltz, or DiCaprio, nor an Original Screenplay nomination for Tarantino.  However, that’s about as far as I can go.

One final comment on another historically-inspired movie currently in theatres also concerns depictions that some probably don’t care to see or acknowledge about the dog-in-heat presentation of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) in Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, concerning the pre-WW II meeting in upper New York state in the summer of 1939 between President FDR and the King (Bertie or George VI, played by Samuel West) and Queen (Elizabeth [Olivia Colman]) of England, although it’s presented from the perspective of the President’s distant but love-struck cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney), who becomes—to her initial anger and embarrassment—another one of Franklin’s concubines.  The king is already familiar to us from Tom Hooper’s (of Les Mis fame) 2010 The King’s Speech, which earned Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Colin Firth), and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler).  We’d have to call Hyde Park a prequel to the Speech because of its timing in June 1939, prior to the declaration of war in September.  We’d also have to call this a much less substantial film, focusing as it does on the need for the President to have his Depression/wartime era nerves calmed by hand jobs and who knows what else from Daisy and other women in the retinue, given that wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) seems to have conceded that part of the marriage to surrogates quite some time ago.  Murray provides a charming enough character (although not close to the same league of plausible Presidential depiction as Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln), but given the grave importance of the meeting of these Free World titans prior to engagement with the real Nazis (not Tarantino’s more bumbling version) Hyde Park on Hudson becomes a very trivial tale where we’re supposed to be most concerned about how sincere FDR’s advances are toward smitten Daisy.  If I were actually reviewing this slim slice of fictionalized history I’d say 2 ½ stars because it’s pleasant enough (especially in seeing real bedroom dialogue between the royals as they prepare for the indignity of eating hot dogs at the upcoming Presidential picnic) but in the end it’s a very minor diversion given all else going on in the world at the time (still, if you want more you might start at http://focusfeatures.com/hyde_park_on_hudson).

Considering this whole cinematic lot as the Two Guys site bids farewell to 2012 I’d say forget the 3 covered this week (unless you crave the audacity of Django Unchained) and either see Lincoln if you haven’t yet or save your money until after New Year’s as you await a much more recent bit of history brought to life in Zero Dark Thirty.  That’s all for now.  See you again in 2013!


If you’d like to know more about Les Misérables here are some recommended links:



http://www.youtube.com/user/lesmiserablesfilm (a combo site of 31 various videos; indulge yourself)




If you’d like to know more about Django Unchained here are some recommended links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3b2dH6n3Qg (about 18 min. of interviews with director Quentin Tarantino and actors Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson conducted by enthusiastic suck-up [Is there any film or filmmaker that’s not his all-time favorite?] Jake Hamilton)





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6 comments:

  1. Nice work Mr. Burke. I don't know how you manage the level of detail and references in your analyses. It's almost like you are getting paid for it.

    Django needs a warning label for those with delicate sensitivities. With that said, Tarantino definitely held my attention (as usual) while employing excellent actors and professional production values. Some are calling this Christmas release a top ten of 2012. Oh well, each to his own.

    Maybe the two guys need to create their own list. Happy New Year!

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  2. Hi rj. I'm delighted to start the new year off with a note to you. Thanks for all of your attention and help with this little enterprise throughout 2012. Sometimes the verification of those details in the reviews, my poor typing skills, and my inability to catch the little flaws in the final edits until after about the 4th read-through result in the writing and posting of these things taking several hours. At least it keeps me out of poolrooms.

    We will get a 2012 Top 10 list together at some reasonable time, as soon as I've had to chance to see some of the final big-time contenders such as Zero Dark Thirty and The Impossible.

    Until the next review, Happy New Year to all! May this one bring our best cinema yet!

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  3. I caught Les Misérables last night at the Bijou while waiting for the wife to finish an unscheduled evening shift caring for the sick at the local charity hospital. Somehow appropriate. I am clearly the observer while she lives some of Valjean's redeemer role.

    I read the original 1400 page Victor Hugo classic generations ago in (or more correctly for) High School English. In Texas we were taught the classics but gained little real insight into our own American history beyond Paul Revere and the Raiders. Wait, that's who we listened to through our seven transistor radios with the little white earplugs. Our generation's IPhones.

    Les Mis (the novel) made an impression at the time, primarily due to it's heft, complexity of narrative, unending description prose and constant plot diversions. The result was a complete immersion into the inner psychics of Hugo's Valjean and Javert characters. It's been said before: but to really appreciate Hugo's work you have to read the book. Even then, not everyone will like it.

    Javert's lifelong pursuit and Valjean's struggles were clearly echoed in my then pop culture references such as David Janssen's The Fugitive where unfairly disgraced Dr. Richard Kimble was doggedly pursued by Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard (Barry Morse)for years and years.

    The small screen's Fugitive was a Les Mis precursor for me while Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night was perhaps my cinematic introduction to grimy poverty, unjust power and blatant discrimination. Jewison employed Rod Steiger as the face of law while Sidney Poitier was the unjustly identified criminal. I would certainly recommend the original In the Heat of the Night for it's powerful performances and themes. Particularly strong for the sixties in America.

    Nevertheless, I remember the power of Hugo's written characterizations, which are sadly missing in the current film incarnation. Jackman's performance is certainly one reason to see this version, but honestly, I might recommend an alternative strategy for your cinematic pursuits.

    Perhaps one could watch through Hathaway's early demise (maybe the first 20 minutes?), then change theaters and watch Hyde Park or some other lightweight ninety minute diversion, returning for the last 40 minutes of Les Mis to witness the somewhat redeeming conclusion. Otherwise you may have just spend three hours in the dark.

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  4. Hi rj, Thanks for this thoughtful and detailed response to the much better resource material that informs the current film of Les Misérables.

    I agree with your recommendation of how it might best be viewed (relative to Oscar-nominated directors and the omission of Mr. Hooper here, it seems that the Academy may agree) and I encourage you to keep adding these marvelously insightful comments, which allows the Two Guys site to actually offer useful opinions from two actual guys (sorry, Pat, but rj and I are still keeping the keyboard warm for you—and everyone also note how smoothly I framed my comments as "useful"; maybe I might have a career in politics after all). Ken

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