"The 'd' is silent," says Jamie Foxx as the title character in Django Unchained, a spaghetti Western homage set primarily in the South before the Civil War. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino penned more than just a clever catchphrase with the line. As a former slave turned bounty hunter, Django's understanding of his name's pronunciation signals his literacy and personal agency, in a place where many African-Americans languish unschooled and in bondage.
Tarantino presents Django Unchained as a kind of companion to his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, a World War II epic that gave the Jews a chance to exact revenge against the Nazis. Django Unchained unfolds as a more flamboyantly gory tale of a black man's vengeance against Dixie's institutional racism. Both films star Christoph Waltz as a stalker of human beings, only this time, as former dentist King Schultz, he follows a moral code as a bounty hunter and "agent of the court."
Traveling the countryside in a wagon with an oversized molar on the roof, Schultz purchases Django to track down some murderous slavers, then frees Django and becomes his partner to find the former slave's long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz recounts the myth of Brunhilde and Siegfried as a story of love conquering all, but Tarantino's heart belongs less to male-female romance than to Django and Schultz's friendship. A montage of the pair riding the range with Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" on the soundtrack feels of a piece with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Like all of Tarantino's films, Django Unchained contains a compendium of pop history references, with Blazing Saddles appearing to be an unlikely source of inspiration. Like Mel Brooks' beloved spoof played (mostly) straight, Django Unchained emphasizes the tension of a black gunman confounding ignorant bigots, played by the likes of Walton Goggins and Don Johnson (in a Colonel Sanders get-up).
Leonardo DiCaprio gives a deliciously hateful turn as Calvin Candie, owner of a gorgeous but hellish estate called Candyland. The most shocking performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, head slave in Candie's "big house." Stephen makes his entrance unleashing the kind of hilarious stream of profanity we expect from the actor, but we quickly realize that Candie indulges Stephen's outspoken tendencies like a feudal king would his favorite court jester. In fact, Stephen proves to be an Uncle Tom with a vicious streak, so comfortably ensconced in the status quo and loyal to his owner that he'll defend the system against anyone who'd challenge it. The concept of black people complicit in slavery, along with the film's near-constant use of the n-word, seem calculated to make Django Unchained a powder keg of controversy.
Thematically inflammatory, Django Unchained may be Tarantino's most conventionally structured film, lacking the scrambled chronology or overlapping storylines that mark most of his work. Drawing on everything from old Hollywood westerns to blaxploitation B movies to hip-hop music, Django Unchained offers a veritable blood orgy that's brazenly cathartic.
- COURTESY UNIVERSAL
- Russel Crowe blares his way through Les Misérables.
It's hard to forget that Les Misérables, the new film of the 1985 musical, originated with a French novel. The sprawling cinematic version pours on the schmaltz as thick as you'd expect from the land of heavy sauces. Les Misérables hurls shame and restraint to the wind as it embraces tear-jerker status, delivering such melodrama mainstays as star-crossed lovers, noble sacrifices, angelic-voiced waifs with artfully smudged faces and a plucky street urchin with a cockney accent thick enough for Oliver!'s entire ensemble, despite being in early 19th-century Paris.
Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech, helms a painfully sincere throwback to the era of budget-busting musicals, and even recorded the songs live on the set, rather than lip-syncing after the fact. For most of the performers, particularly Broadway veteran Hugh Jackman as lifelong fugitive Jean Valjean, the approach adds a breathy earnestness to the numbers in the 19th-century French period piece. As a primarily sung-through musical, however, the warbling conversations between the likes of Valjean and relentless inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) come across as awkward and unnatural. Crowe's baritone blare doesn't live up to the musical's demands, but his physical presence conveys the role's implacable authority.
As doomed single mother Fantine, Anne Hathaway brings such raw-nerve emotionalism to her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" that they might as well hand her an Oscar statuette when it's over. Eddie Redmayne's dashing young hero and Samantha Barks' unappreciated "bad girl" also flourish in the spotlight. Most of the musical numbers prove to be similar oh-woe-is-me solos, filmed in tight close-up, until the film resembles an "American Idol" competition. Out of sheer novelty value, you appreciate the unsubtle comic relief of "Master of the House," which showcases the larcenous Thénardier couple (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).
The flag-waving people's anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing?" provides an undeniably stirring tribute to resistance in the face of oppression (and fits with the topical imagery of the Occupy movement). In fact, Les Misérables commits so deeply to bombastic spectacle that skeptics in the audience may wave their own white flag of surrender, which feels easier than resistance.