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"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.
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.
This is 40
It's not surprising that Judd Apatow would want to revisit Debbie and Pete, the attractive but fractious married couple played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in the 2007 hit Knocked Up. For one thing, Mann is Apatow's off-screen wife, while their daughters Maude and Iris played the couple's kids. By devoting his new comedy This is 40 to the family, Apatow effectively combined a film production with Take Your Daughters To Work Day.
As the title suggests, the couple are both about to turn 40 years old. Their birthdays actually fall in the same week, but their big party is only officially for Pete, since Debbie claims to be perpetually thirtysomething. Aware of their youth ebbing away, the pair wrangle various subplots. Debbie owns a boutique where an employee (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi) may be stealing from her. The future of Paul's record label rests on a comeback record by Graham Parker (playing himself). Debbie tries to renew bonds with her estranged father (John Lithgow), while Pete wouldn't mind loosening ties with his shameless mooch of a dad (Albert Brooks).
As part of a self-improvement regimen, Debbie tries to control her smoking, Paul's cupcake habit, and the family's attachment to electronic gadgets. This is 40 shows amusing insight into the quirks of modern family life, like the tendency of everyone to retreat into their favorite devices. Sadie's obsession with "Lost" provides an amusing running joke.
This is 40 features an appealing cast of veterans of Apatow productions, including Jason Segel, Lena Dunham, Chris O'Dowd and Melissa McCarthy, although Knocked Up's stars, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl as Debbie's sister, are no-shows. Surprisingly, This is 40 offers little that Knocked Up didn't do already, including scenes of Debbie visiting a trendy nightclub and a birthday gathering taken over by hissy fits.
Rudd and Mann play off each other well as a pair of sharp-witted people who too often take out their frustrations on each other. Unfortunately the film falls into a repetitive cycle of confrontation and reconciliation that the snappy patter can't redeem. This is 40 seldom gives a sense that anything's really at stake. Despite — or maybe because of — the fact that they bicker like "The Lockhorns" transplanted to privileged Los Angeles, Debbie and Pete seem made for each other.
Café de Flore
Québécois singer-songwriter Kevin Parent plays one of the central roles of Café de Flore, a deeply moving meditation on love and loss by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée. Parent portrays popular club DJ Antoine, whom the film introduces at nearly 40 years old, but at the peak of his life's happiness: he's besotted with his super-hot young girlfriend (Évelyne Brochu), has a pair of gorgeous daughters, and enjoys a globe-trotting career that allows him to creatively express his devotion to music.
Taking a cue from Antoine's profession, Café de Flore leaps back and forth between different time periods, like a DJ intercutting between multiple beats in a single mix. Most perplexing, the film switches from present-day Canada to Paris in the late 1960s to follow Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), the fiercely protective single mother of Laurent (Marin Gerrier), a boy with Down syndrome. Songs snake through both time lines, with Jacqueline and Laurent bonding over the jazz tune "Café de Flore," while Antoine uses Pink Floyd's languid "Breathe" from The Dark Side of the Moon as his theme song.
Both plot threads explore the joys, heartaches, and complexities of love. Jacqueline refuses to let the disability define or put limitations on her son, showering him with affection while wrangling with the educational system. Meanwhile, Antoine thinks he's found his soul mate in his new lady love, despite his lingering emotions for his ex-wife Carole (Hélène Florent). As the film progresses, Carole comes into clearer focus, with her grief at their failed marriage absorbing more of the present-day storyline. A newcomer to the big screen, Parent holds his own in Café de Flore, but Paradis and Florent do the dramatic heavy lifting with a pair of wrenching performances.
When the film finally reveals the connection between the two time lines, Café de Flore takes a narrative leap that some audiences won't be prepared to make. Though the film's final twists can strain credulity, overall it succeeds enormously well as an exploration of different moods, like the way people can associate specific moments of their lives with different pieces of music, or allow emotions to color their perceptions of the world. Rather than demand pure realism from Café de Flore's screenplay, audiences will enjoy greater rewards if they just get into its groove.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Director Peter Jackson pumps up J.R.R. Tolkien's kid-friendly adventure book into an overlong, inconsistent prequel (the first of three) to The Lord of the Rings films. Despite its flaws, The Hobbit remains the most likely choice of the new films to please everyone in the family.
Hyde Park on Hudson Bill Murray presents an intriguing variation on his sly, minimalistic acting style as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this film named for the president's getaway in upstate New York. Rather than explore the minefield of the First Couple's marriage, the plot plays nearly at the level of frothy farce. A missed opportunity.
Also opening Dec. 21
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away The next best thing to getting into Le Grand Chapiteau, this concert film uses 3D effects to simulate the death-defying thrills of the world renowned circus.
Jack Reacher Tom Cruise plays the title character of this novel adaptation, a military policeman turned drifter who investigates the case of a vicious sniper and a man wrongfully accused of the crime. Fans of the books may notice Cruise, unlike the character, is not a six-and-a-half-foot bruiser.
Also opening Dec. 25
Parental Guidance A pair of opinionated grandparents (Billy Crystal and Bette Midler) descend upon their grown kids (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) for this comedy about how parenting styles clash across generations. If you were hoping for a Fockers film this season, this is the closest substitute.
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