Les Misérables and Django Unchained, Reviewed
Les Misérables, as its title suggests, isn’t exactly two buckets of fun. But Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the stage musical is a passable entertainment if you don’t mind ignoring a few irksome questions. Questions such as: How exactly does a convict become a wealthy mayor in eight years? Why would a factory worker get fired over having a kid? And who on earth thought it’d be a good idea to have Russell Crowe sing—a lot?
At two hours and 37 minutes, the film feels like a string—sometimes a very long string—of episodic mini-melodramas instead of a cohesive story. It opens with the parole of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a peasant imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family and subsequent escape attempts. At his release, he has a heated sing-off with the warden, Javert (Crowe), who happens to be on the police force when the story skips eight years forward and Valjean is now mayor of a small French village.
Meanwhile, another peasant named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is let go from her job when it’s discovered she’s supporting a daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Fantine sings the famous “I Dreamed a Dream”—OK, it’s quite the showstopper, a simultaneously mournful and angry ballad in which Hathaway expertly hits even the low notes and cries genuine tears—after selling her hair and teeth and becoming a prostitute. (Thought: Hookers with hair and teeth probably make a bit more cash.) When she dies shortly thereafter, Valjean takes custody of the girl from sticky-fingered innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who are previously shown doing some fluid thievery on their guests while performing the film’s only upbeat (and annoyingly catchy) number, “Master of the House.”
The action jumps again nine years. Cosette is now a lovely lady (Amanda Seyfried) who’s instantly smitten with Marius (doofy Eddie Redmayne, who has a weird trill to his voice)—who’s instantly smitten back, but has some revolution to deal with. (Things aren’t terribly well-explained; apparently, the spectacle of singing, dancing, and wailing is supposed to suffice.) Among Marius’ activist friends is also a Cockney brat (Daniel Huttlestone), whom research says is the Thénardiers’ son (though the film doesn’t let on), as well as Éponine (terrific newcomer Samantha Barks), also the offspring of the Thénardiers, who too is inexplicably in love with Marius and lets us know in the heartbreaking “On My Own.”
Les Misérables’ achievement of note is that all the actors sang live during filming as opposed to lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks; along with Hooper’s frequently bobbing camera, it adds an urgency and immediacy to all the lament. Of the cast, it’s clear Jackman is the musical theater vet, and he’s easily the most impressive thing about the film, particularly during “What Have I Done,” in which his Valjean shows sorrow, guilt, appreciation, anger, and determination all while belting a single song. At the other end is Crowe, whose warbles will make dogs bay and audiences want to stab their eardrums. Then again, after nearly three utterly bleak and occasionally nonsensical hours of song, some of you may want to do that anyway.
“Sleepy” isn’t a word you’d normally associate with Quentin Tarantino. Yet, amid my mostly indecipherable notes for Django Unchained, it clearly stands out: “a little sleepy.” You might argue that it’s inevitable when a film has a 165-minute runtime, but except for the elegant lightning bolt that is Reservoir Dogs, all of Tarantino’s terrific movies sprawl. (Kill Bill, whose expansiveness forced it to be halved, doesn’t quite count.)
No, in this case it’s just a matter of promising yet thin material, though Django is entertaining enough not to completely disappoint. Similar to arguably the director’s best, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, this 1858-set, slavery-themed western kicks off with a chatty Christoph Waltz, here playing dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King (an homage? A request for forgiveness?) Schultz. Schultz is in Texas interrupting the transport of a handful of chained slaves, communicating with those in charge with words such as “parlay” and “caterwauling,” leading to multiple requests that he “speak English!” He offers to buy one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx). When that doesn’t work out, Schultz just shoots the men and unchains the captives, suggesting that they “make their way to a more enlightened area of this country.”
Schultz needs Django’s assistance in his hunt of a trio of brothers. The doc doesn’t know what they look like; Django does. When Django helps track down and kill them, Schultz offers to make him his bounty-hunting partner, buying him new clothes of his choice (the frilly indigo suit he picks out makes Django look like a cross between a pimp and a dandy, har har) and, after a succession of captures/kills, agrees to travel to Mississippi in an attempt to reunite Django with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Broomhilda’s master is Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a plantation owner who likes to fight slaves for sport.
This is where Django Unchained lags. The pair secure Candie’s good graces by asking to buy some of his slaves for exorbitant amounts of cash; the threesome then drink, dine, banter, take in some slavefighting, all while Schultz and Django keep an eye out for Broomhilda. Samuel L. Jackson shows up in a nearly cartoonish part as head slave Stephen, who suspects the pair have ulterior motives.
As expected, the film is ultraviolent, with so many shootouts you’ll grow weary of them and graphic displays of spurting blood and guts. And as has already been endlessly talked about, Tarantino makes prodigious use of the n-word, though in his own unnecessary, last-chapter cameo, his Australian (?) character doesn’t dare mutter the slur, referring instead to “the black.” If this—as well as the plot itself—amounts to some sort of social commentary about how African-Americans were treated pre-Civil War, it’s a stretch. Better is the director’s use of humor, with one particularly memorable laugh-out-loud scene involving KKK members bitching about their hoods. It’s classic Tarantino, and will make you want to revisit his previous, superior oeuvre.