Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Three Small Reviews

I'm back in New York City and quickly catching up with the movies I missed when I was gone. With the Oscar Nominations coming tomorrow I've been locking myself up at the nearest movie theaters. Here's a few thoughts on some of the movies I saw in this few days. 

Les Misérables 
Directed by Tom Hooper
This has shaped up to be one of the most divisive film of the year and as it tends to be my case with divisive films, I stand in the middle. Tom Hooper's Les Misérables has a lot of problems, but it's far from the worst of movie of the year. The biggest problem for me is that the different aspects of Hooper's vision and the original show clash and don't let the film work. 
Hooper seems to go for a very realistic look in his cinematography using long, unbroken close-ups for most of the solo songs. But the sets, especially in the second half, look very stage-y. This added to the hermetic frames give the movie an artificial feel that hurt the whole "realistic" approach. It's also an editing nightmare. Rarely do you notice the editing in a film, but in this case I was constantly wondering why every bad cutting-room decision was made. 
As far as the performances are concerned: Anne Hathaway knocks it out of the park, Hugh Jackman is solid throughout (but doesn't benefit from Hooper's tiring constant close-ups) and Eddie Redmayne surprises with his powerful singing voice. The rest don't offer much to write home about.

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow 
I don't think this one's better than Bigelow's wonderful Hurt Locker, but it takes a similar approach to its subject. The Hurt Locker stepped away from taking political sides on the necessity of the war in Iraq, focusing on the drama that affected the soldiers on duty. Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty takes a clinical look at the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. 
Much conversation has arisen about the film's portrait of torture. I think the film does not celebrate torture. I think it's mirror of the American mindset and its determination. The film's lead character (played masterfully by Jessica Chastain) is almost an embodiment of determination, trying to find Bin Laden at all costs. We don't know much about her personal life. We know her personal journey is to track and kill Bin Laden. Not for the victims or the American people, but for herself. 
The strength of Zero Dark Thirty lies in the many things you can ask yourself about the hunt for Bin Laden. In many ways, it's like a piece of journalism. It won't tell you what to think, but it will expose you with enough variables so you can draw your own conclussions. 

Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
And talking about advocating violence in film... Tarantino's latest is yet another revenge tale. This time, he takes us to the antebellum south to see how slave Django (Jamie Foxx) takes vengeance in order to free his wife Bromhilda (Kerry Washington). 
There's controversy surrounding the film and its portrayal of a former slave taking vengeance upon his masters. It's true that it has many funny and ridiculous moments, but it also takes the cruelties and horrors of slavery very seriously. The question is whether we should cheer for Django's violent take-down of the slavers or we should find that violence as disturbing as the one inflicted on the slaves. 
The trio of supporting actors featured here has gained lots of accolades. I don't know why so many critic groups have awarded Christoph Waltz for a performance that is largely a retread of his Hans Landa and Leonardo DiCaprio is a lot of fun as villainous Calvin Candie, but the true stand-out to me is Samuel L. Jackson, who is simply terrific as Candie's personal Uncle Tom. I also wish that Tarantino, who is so great with female actors, would have given Kerry Washington more stuff to do. 
Overall, the film, like most Tarantinos, is a lot of fun albeit a little sloppy. It doesn't feel as carefully plotted and edited as his previous work. It also lacks the kind of thematic richness and character development that made Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown such great movies. It's one of Tarantino's weakest films, but it will do for his most ardent fans. 

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