Your Definitive Guide to 4 Holiday Movies:
Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, and The Hobbit, Reviewed
Lemme break it down: I like movies. And I like pretending to be A.O. Scott, the NY Times film critic and my personal hero. So winter break for me usually means three things: internship apps, ungodly amounts of family and food, and FINALLY seeing the season’s last great blockbusters. But the choice of which to see - and which to avoid- can be daunting. So I've decided to hash out the details of the season’s biggest films so you don’t end up wasting over ten bucks on something abhorrent. Admittedly, 2012 was a great year for movies and I highly encourage all to see Skyfall and The Perks of Being a Wallflower after careful and repeated viewings of:
1. Django Unchained
Run time: 180 minutes
Why it's awesome: Thrilling and intriguing plot, perfect pacing, great score, and absurdly good performances by Christoph Walz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. In one film.
Why it's not: No words. This movie is faultless.
Before I delve into how and why Django is Tarantino’s masterpiece I first have to reveal myself as a huge Tarantino fan. I’ve seen all of his movies. All of them. So this review will be a bit heavy on the love.
Those of you familiar with Tarantino know he’s a pretty polarizing guy – gratuitous violence and shocking situations are fixtures in his films. But he’s one-of-a-kind in that he not only directs but also writes his script, creating in astoundingly fluid chef d’oeuvres whose dialogue-to-action ratio results in insanely entertaining films. That being said, Django Unchained is as close to perfect as a film can get. What are the criteria for a perfect movie? Great directing, acting, plot, pacing, score and ability to ask or allude to bigger questions about consciousness and existence. Django has all of these components.
Christoph Walz plays another perfect character as a German bounty hunter Dr. Schulz who enters into a partnership with ex-slave Django (Foxx). After a rough-and-tumble start killing villainous white men, Schulz and Django partner up to free Django’s wife from the clutches of Monsieur Candie (DiCaprio), owner of the largest slave plantation in Mississippi: Candieland.
The most interesting aspect of Django is not that it’s a slave film made by a white director, but that it is obviously conscious of being a movie. From the start, Tarantino eludes to the conscience of the film: there is a great bit of dialogue between Schulz and Django about the nature and point of acting and persuasion. In Django, even more so than Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s other divisive re-telling of history, Tarantino plays with the pact made between director and audience – that the director poses one question and provides compelling reasons to support his argument. Clearly the question here is effortlessly summed up by the evil Mr. Candie: Why don’t slaves just rise up and kill the plantation owners? Django explores the theme of awareness of personal power and greed, not only with regards to slaves and slave owners, but also with regards to directors. Tarantino is excited to rewrite the Civil War in his own unique Quentin universe but also consummately aware of his audience and the nature of filmmaking: that it should be believable and entertaining despite its obvious fiction.
To accomplish this, Django is as much a character study and drama as it is a film of gratuitous violence. Schulz is Tarantino’s most interesting character to date – one who absolutely loathes slavery but has no problem killing men in cold blood. Is he a good guy with a dark side or a bad guy with a good side? This theme of precarious principles and the thirst for riches is further explored by Django himself, hoping to alleviate the conditions of all slaves he sees but must give tunnel-like focus to the task of saving his wife first. The depth of these dilemmas is lightened considerably by the sheer ridiculousness of this pseudo-Western – that the place of resounding evil is entitled Candieland, that a rotund Jonah Hill hilarious grapples with mask problems during a not-so-funny KKK raid, and that Django’s face-off with Candie on the eve of the Civil War is accompanied by awesome hip-hop music.
In short, Django is rich, conscious, uncomfortable, and wickedly funny. Despite its runtime of 2:45, it felt like 30 minutes passed and left me begging for more.
I’m counting down the hours until I see it again. Pathetic? Maybe.
Run time: 150 minutes
Why it’s awesome: Daniel Day-Lewis powerfully plays the greatest American president as he struggles to pass the Fourteenth Amendment through an embittered congress.
Why it’s not: This film has little lacking in accuracy and an overall sense of importance but if you are not a history buff and prefer action to lengthy soliloquies, avoid seeing see this movie late at night.
Two words: Daniel Day-Lewis. That name should be enough to convince you to see Lincoln. Deserved hailed as modern cinema’s peerless male lead, Day-Lewis masterfully plays a charming yet resolute Lincoln during the most dramatic and importance last months of his presidency. This film is by no means a bloody civil war action-epic. Rather, it rests of the gigantic shoulders of Day-Lewis, who chaperones the audience through a character-study of Lincoln and his loving yet strained relationship with congress, his wife Mary Lincoln played by an Oscar-deserving Sally Fields, and son Robert Lincoln played by the glorious Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
This film should be required viewing for all Americans because of its fierce and honest grappling with and resolution of America’s original sin of slavery. As a political science major who recently read most of Lincoln’s speeches for a hideous final, I was overjoyed that Spielberg did not sacrifice history for entertainment. The film was justifiably epic in narrative and length, nearly teetering on the edge of grandiose, but reigned in by the hilarious performance of Tommy Lee Jones as curmudgeon Thaddeus Stevens, Radical Republican Congressional leader.
Grade: A –
3. Les Misérables
Run time: 157 minutes
Why it’s awesome: We’ve now heard for the millionth time that the film was live-sung.
Why it’s not: The film was live sung.
The title of Les Misérables is especially appropriate in the 2012 rendition of the classic opera: the audience is as miserable after hearing Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe attempt to vomit out vocals as the starving French peasants were during the 1832 uprising. The otherwise absolutely wrenching and magnificent film was devastatingly outdone by a toxic mixture of Jackman’s tortuous vibrato and Crowe’s general heaving. This wouldn’t be the problem there were more than ten spoken words in the whole film and if Jackman didn’t sing for 99.89 per cent of the three hours. Let me reiterate: three hours is a long time.
Yet Tom Hooper’s ambitious project is not a total failure. In fact, the supporting characters and cinematography masterfully depict the grittiness, devastation, and fleeting hope for which Les Mis is famous. Particularly, the sheer genius and talent of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) make the film break-even, if not almost good. This is relieving, because the individual struggle, represented by Fantine, and society’s collective struggle for basic dignity amidst an oppressive monarchy, represented by fatal Enjolras and his fiery band of students, are the lynchpins of the musical and film. And they were amazing. My heart near burst during the barricade scene when Enjolras is joined by his last surviving friend before being surrounded and gunned down by a horde of soldiers. Perhaps I find this parallel between youth and hope gut-wrenching because I’m a student myself or perhaps that’s the miracle of Les Mis: it is perennially relevant because human suffering, longing, and greatness are continuous fixtures of life. However poor the lead actor’s performances are, they cannot dim the epic plot of Les Mis nor the emotions it persistently elicits.
My only wish was that Hooper believed that Les Mis itself could draw large enough sales on its own and did not need the misguided assistance of Wolverine and Maximus. Nevertheless, the supporting actors more than carried the film. Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Helena Bohman Carter as Madame Thenardier, and Sasha Baron Cohen as Monsieur Thenardier were deliciously entertaining and well deserving of praise. As always, Cohen proved unique: he was the only character to even attempt a French accent.
Grade: B+, despite it all.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Run time: 169 minutes
Why it’s awesome: JRR Tolkien is a master storyteller and the plot of the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is charming, regardless of the less-than-stellar translation into film. As in the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson’s native New Zealand provides a lovely background complimented by Howard Shore’s lovely score. An excellent Gollum steals the show in a hilarious show down with Bilbo Baggins.
Why it’s not: While the CGI and fantasy elements in Lord of the Rings franchise are sophisticated and believable, the Hobbit is surprisingly cartoonish and garish despite a 250 million dollar budget.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not the Lord of the Rings films. And that’s a tragedy. Obviously, the source material is different: JRR Tolkien wrote the Hobbit a few years before World War II, which prompted him to pen the Lord of the Rings, a transparent allusion to Nazi Germany and an examination of a an epic struggle of good-versus-evil and human weakness. The Hobbit tells a far more charming and lighthearted story that introduces the world of Middle Earth, its peculiar and adorable inhabitants, and their overtly biblical ties to their native lands. In The Hobbit, I did not ask for director Peter Jackson to address innate fears and desires quite like he did in LOTRs. But I did hope to at least enjoy it.
I don’t think it’s too much to demand intriguing and personable main characters, believable CGI, and at least some semblance of a linear plot. The whole production seemed slapped together and overextended in the hopes of reaping the largest box-office sales possible. Instead of sticking to the charm characterizing novel’s simple plot, the Hobbit franchise stretches one short book into three grandiose films boasting relentless and purposeless chase scenes and tasteless CGI. Rather than boisterous, the dwarves seem corny and forced and, sadly, the general stupidity of the goblins and trolls steal the spotlight from a wonderful and unassuming Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. If you consider yourself a true LOTRs fanatic, the hilarious showdown between Gollum, arguably the most tragic Tolkien character, and Bilbo might make the price of admission seem less like a total waste of money. Still, every time the panoramic views of New Zealand are accompanied by Howard Shore’s magnificent score that defined the Lord of the Rings films it feels like a slap in the face with regards to what this film could have been and what the previous rings films were.