Les Miserables

This movie is not an easy one to review.

From the moment this movie came out, my Facebook feed was flooded with raving positive reviews. To judge from most of the reactions, this was not just the greatest thing since sliced bread, but that mere bakery tricks were far transcended by this masterpiece of film. This was Citizen Kane with singing.

Better than a singing Kane sandwich? Impossible I say!

I went into this movie as unbiased as I could be. I was a bit apprehensive knowing how passionately people were lauding the movie, knowing that it could not possibly live up to such enthusiasm.

Once I came out of the movie, I noticed that a number of people around me were crying, while others were talking among themselves about how astounding the spectacle they just witnessed was. That was when I first questioned whether or not I was a robot. Since then, I’ve been going over the movie in my head in order to understand the disparate between our experiences, and to hopefully cast aside my doubts as to my humanity.

When I walked out of that movie, I was thinking two things: 1) “That movie was really long and felt really long,” and 2) “Russell Crowe can’t sing worth a damn.” This was not Citizen Kane with singing (though I would watch that movie). This was an OK but forgettable adaptation of a classic story, maybe a 7/10.

I already know that giving an average review of this movie is going to take some flak, so here’s my defense: this movie had a handful of distracting flaws. They weren’t enough to make the movie “bad”, but they were enough to hold it back from the “good” or “elite” categories.

The first of these flaws is something that I thought would be a boon, in that it is something that the screen offers that the stage doesn’t: the wide, panning, spectacular establishing shots. This would typical only be a minor gripe, but it felt so incredibly out of place whenever they showed up, I couldn’t help but point it out. Those shots should feel natural despite their beauty, but it felt like they were trying way too hard and thus the shots looked artificial. The opening shot with the ship being hauled looked almost cartoonish, like it belonged in a Pirates of the Carribean movie. I was actually specifically reminded of the maelstrom fight scene in Pirates III, which also looked incredibly unnatural and jarring.

The second flaw is maybe the one thing even the fans will admit was an issue with this adaptation: Russell Crowe. Crowe is a good actor, but this was not a role for him. His singing was inconsistent, and at its worst sounded like all-caps slurring. As one person noted on my facebook, he sounded like he was singing through peanut butter in his mouth. His character was just too important to have flubbed on the casting, and I can’t help but feel like this was a ticket-selling move. I am a big fan of casting for talent and aptitude for a role over throwing bones to the already well-fed, especially if they don’t cut it in a crucial aspect of a role. Then again, you could always have worse casting issues…

Next issue: the casting. Outside of Jackman and Hathaway, only three members of the ensemble cast felt like good choices: Cohen and Bonham-Carter as the comic relief (killed it), and Isabelle Allen, who I was thoroughly impressed with as Young Cosette. Everyone else suffered from some issue, typically either not having enough time on screen to develop a character (thus becoming just a warm body/bullet depository); or just not fitting the bill for their part. The first issue wouldn’t be so much of an issue if we weren’t supposed to care so much about these characters who are only vaguely familiar faces in the film. The second issue, like the casting of Crowe (and in my opinion, Redmayne as Marius) isn’t something you can just work around. It sours every scene they are in, regardless of the effort they are putting in. Then again, is there such a thing as trying too hard?

Next issue: Anne Hathaway. To be clear, she did a really good job in the movie. However, I thought it was too obvious, even to the point of blatant manipulation, that this was an Academy Award audition. If a role/performance is truly impressive on its own merits, it should not occur to you as you watching the depiction that they (the filmmakers, to be clear) are pandering at an award. You should be fully immersed in what is happening. To me, her entire segment of the movie felt completely staged for the purpose of bringing in an award. She didn’t actually get much time on screen, so I am curious if they were looking to make as strong a case as possible for what they had (and justify her billing). Still, the fact that the thought even popped into my head while she was still on the screen didn’t impress me. Then again, I might be a robot.

I honestly think that the main audience of this film (fans of the source) were willing to either consciously or subconsciously gloss over most of the issues. Even that, however, is perplexing to me. Since when is a fandom forgiving to Hollywood adaptations of their sacred cows? If Joss Whedon isn’t in the director’s chair, nerds are seldom pleased with anything that hits the screen from the realm of nerddom. Maybe musical fans are just really forgiving on the whole to film adaptations? I’m not a big musical fan, so I can’t really speak for them on that. Still, it was something I found interesting.

In addition to the forgiven flaws, I think fans of either the musical or the story would not have the same problems as a general audience member walking in cold. I have to assume that many of those young, rebellious characters were better portrayed in previous versions, and that the fans actually knew who they were from previous experience. For them, youthful rebellious boys #’s 1-6 were actual human characters with personality traits, and not just (as mentioned earlier) bullet depositories.

The last thing I had a big issue with was not something fixable: the length. At once, this movie was both too long (and more importantly, felt too long) for a casual theater and too short to flesh out the colorful cast of characters. This movie should have been an epic miniseries, as had been done in the past with Les Miserables. The acts are already well-structured for it, and the characters would have actually had a chance to breathe and come to life before the camera. That’s my opinion anyway.

List of other minor gripes: Hugh Jackman’s “old” makeup wasn’t convincing at all. Jackman and Crowe had no chemistry on screen; they looked like they were acting at each other instead of with each other. Redmayne and Seyfried did not have a compelling or believable chemistry on screen (at least I wasn’t buying it). Mostly issues related to casting again.

aging: the process of your beard retracting and re-emerging from your scalp

Despite all of my issues with this movie, I honestly stick by my guns of 7/10. Taking the awesome source material out of the equation, this film on its own is just average. It had too many instances where I was jerked fully out of the experience, and Crowe / the ensemble really failed to hold the whole thing together from the bottom up. If anyone should be upset about the final product, it should be Hathaway and Jackman. The frame below them wasn’t up to par, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. They were waving the flag on top of a ramshackle collection of furniture. The flag was still flying, but they could certainly be on much better footing.

I’m still unsure if not breaking down into tears at this movie and then having the audacity to give it an average review makes me a robot or not. I guess we will never know.

beep boop

Django (1966)

I’ve never been much of a spaghetti western fan, but I’ve had some friends swear by Django long before Tarantino’s recent homage. To put it accurately, the 1966 cult classic has always had my curiosity. After seeing Django: Unchained, it had my attention.

The first thing that caught my attention as I started Django was the title song. From the first pluck, there’s a twang of pure badassery. Is there any better way to start a western than with a catchy guitar riff? The shots that accompany it are equally awesome, revealing the mysterious title character through a blur, shuffling away from the camera with his iconic coffin in tow. Just give it a watch, it is a particularly impressive way to start a movie:

Of course, the next thing one notices after the opening is the dubbing. I grew up on Toho movies, so I’m typically immune to shoddy dubbing. However, the dubbing on the version I watched seems particularly bad. Could they have twisted the dubbers’ arms to at least try acting? It gets distracting at times, but I suppose it is plenty forgivable.

The first action scene brings up my biggest problem with the movie: outside of the lead, the characters just aren’t memorable or interesting. There’s Mexican leader bad guy, KKK leader bad guy, the bartender…they feel pretty cookie cutter to me. Then again, it is a spaghetti western. My hopes may have been a bit high. The only character apart from Django who can intrigue an audience is Maria, but her motivations barely make sense. As bold as she is at times, she does inexplicably fall for Django for unexplained and unexplored reasons. Apart from the fact that he saved her in the first scene, there’s just nothing there. By that logic of attraction, they might as well have had a romance between Django and General Hugo for as many times as he lent him a hand. Speaking of hands and Hugo, violent punishments are pretty much all his character had to define him. Not the makings of a strong character. Then again, that’s leagues better than the KKK guy. His defining characteristics are wearing a red scarf and disliking Mexicans.

Franco Nero pretty much distinguishes this movie from the spaghetti western pack with his performance alone. He has a gaze that stands out whenever his eyes are on screen, and makes the whole film revolve around him. He’s at once an intimidating figure that eats up the screen, but also portrays the deep pain that really defines the Django character. There is actually an interesting comparison to be drawn between Django and Django Unchained here that is pretty fundamental to how Tarantino’s diverges from the source in style.

As mentioned, Nero’s Django is the absolute dominating force in Django throughout the film (apart from the ear/hand scenes and a few good Maria moments where she surprised me). In Unchained, Foxx’s Django is surrounded by an outstanding ensemble, and for a good portion of the film plays second fiddle to Waltz’s King. Honestly, I think having a stronger cast top to bottom makes a stronger movie than one that is purely driven by the lead. That may seem fairly intuitive to anyone with a brain stem, but the box office begs to differ. In any case, it makes the two films very different in their executions.

reasons #1 and #2 why Django Unchained surpasses Django

Focusing back on the original, I liked the plot much better than I thought I would. There’s quite a lot going on given the two “bad” factions that Django interacts with, and the weapons technology angle is really interesting to throw into the mix. Django’s minigun really is a game-changer, and is what initially makes his character important in the grand scheme of the story. Of course, he is certainly an impressive gunslinger as well, but his shooting skills aren’t what primarily brings attention to him. Django also proves to be rather cunning yet misguidedly greedy, which is quite the fault when it all comes down to it. Having a fallible, vulnerable, and not-so-straight-laced protagonist who doesn’t always come out on top gives Django an interesting edge. It makes the audience wonder on a number of occasions whether Django is someone you should be pulling for, while simultaneously making the audience feel genuine concern for his well-being. There aren’t a whole lot of characters like that out there.

*ending spoilers below*

The finale is outstanding in terms of shootouts. The suspense of the scene as it leads up to the conclusion is not what you generally anticipate from a concluding gun-battle, but it has a great charm to it. The scene is imitated in contemporary movies every now and then (Shoot-em Up comes to mind) In terms of trope-ness, everything sets up for an expected ending for Django. But as the kick-ass title song timely reminds us, “Django, you must face another day.”

There’s something about his ultimate survival that makes Django’s story deeply sadder. Throughout the movie, he is expecting (maybe even desires) to die; and it seems like the only thing he isn’t very good at is living. The way he brokenly stumbles away from the camera without even the solace of his companion coffin makes for a heart-wrenching closing shot.

Overall, I was impressed with Django; primarily in how much it exceeded my expectations. That said, I think this is a movie whose appeal is pretty limited to film buffs and western fans. Most of the glee I got out of the movie was in recognizing its influence on later works. To the average viewer, this is probably just a run-of-the-mill western. Judging from the ratings of the film online, this seems to hold true. On imdb, it hold a modest 7.3; whereas Rotten Tomatoes shows a disparate between critics : audience of 91 : 79.

Still, I’m confident in recommending it to anyone who at least enjoyed Django: Unchained. It is pretty cool to see scenes that are nodded to by Tarantino in Unchained. That said, the two movies are not exactly comparable. The original has only two advantages over Tarantino’s in my opinion: the ending is far better, and Nero’s Django is a better character than Foxx’s (Foxx’s Django is good, but he just isn’t as impressive or deep on the screen). Apart from those two aspects, Tarantino made a much better film in every imaginable aspect. The dialogue, ensemble, cinematography, plot, characters…just everything. And in Tarantino’s defense, his ending felt to be more of a nod to blaxploitation westerns than an attempt to make a compelling and deep conclusion. He could have made one if he wanted to (and I’m curious if there isn’t an alternate ending awaiting us in the future on the DVD release), but he elected to go a different route with it. I might not like the chosen path as much, but I think most audiences would prefer to not be left with a broken Jamie Foxx limping into the distance after seeing his wife killed. Bit of a downer.

The only other thing Django: Unchained was sadly missing was a recreation of this scene:

Taking out the KKK with a minigun? Delicious.

Django: Unchained

This was a movie filled with interesting and risky choices. The setting, the dialogue, the casting, the style: it all panned out superbly. The chemistry between both Foxx/Waltz and Jackson/Dicaprio was unexpectedly astounding, and the choices in ghastly imagery were more than mere exploitation.

Django Unchained Poster

There were no gasps in my theater during the more grisly scenes, just a powerful silence. I’ve seen plenty of Tarantino violence, but it has never been so powerfully sickening. In my opinion, it was deservedly and rightfully so. The setting shouldn’t be treated any differently. What Spike Lee describes as a ‘Holocaust’ should be depicted as such, with no blows held back in regards to stark and grim reality of the time. For a movie based on and expected to be mostly mindless action, much of the violence was more affecting and deep than I had expected. He went places in depicting the “Peculiar Institution” in film that has rarely (if ever) been dared. The fact he was able to get laughs out of his dialogue despite the tone and style of the movie says quite a bit for Quentin’s penmanship. It is also worth noting that the dialogue flow and form didn’t stick out with the setting, despite it being well out of Tarantino’s comfort zone of the contemporaneous.

I originally posted this over at Rotten Tomatoes

Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.