So you’ll laugh. But remain warned: In its unflinching portrayal of slavery, Django Unchained also creates scenes that many won't be able to stomach. Tarantino's hyper-violence and buckets of blood are as entertaining for some of us as they've ever been, but it's the subtle things he just flashes over, letting your mind fill in the utterly inhumane, that stay with you. The serious depiction of the inhumanity of slavery arguably makes it one of the most powerful movies on the subject and an Amistad in its own right. It makes this far more than a genre-busting picture, because it serves as a powerful indictment of a failed and tragic American institution that is only an abstract to most Americans. But it’s because of its unflinching depiction of that horror that means I'll have to wait until DVD release and fast forward over those scenes before showing my wife this great movie.
The other problem is that the movie suffers from its auteur-indulgent Peter Jackson-like runtime. The first 100 minutes are an audacious romp through Westerns and history of the South told in ways that feel completely fresh and bold. The last hour, when a deliciously evil Leonardo DiCaprio arrives at last as the primary villain, isn't bad by a long shot and wraps the epic as it needs to be wrapped up -- it just loses the fresh joy of the first half of the film and the violence reaches absurdist standards. The last hour is still very good, but the high bar raised by the setup and character development of the first two acts leaves you waiting for the great moments it does still dish out - but they're down to just moments now.
Despite these minor flaws, Django Unchained is one of the best movies of the year. If you've got the stomach for scenes that will haunt you, you'll get more from this movie than just about anything that came out all year. But oh God does it earn its R rating, and probably just barely avoided the NC-17. (****) -- Nick Davison
There is a rare and definitively breathtaking acting sequence in the film adaptation of the long-running everywhere theatrical blockbuster musical Les Misérables. Literally, there were gasps of stunned, blown-away audience members all throughout the theater after Anne Hathaway’s gut-wrenching interpretation of "I Dreamed a Dream." Not only is it going to win her the Oscar, it is one of the most amazing performances in the history of cinema, mesmerizing and transportive. And I know that's a huge statement, but when you see it, you'll believe it. It's devastating. She feels every ounce of the song, and what's most compelling is that she TAKES YOU WITH HER, you're right there, the camera is in close-up in a long, long, long single take and there's nowhere for her to go and nowhere for us to go and it goes on and on and she just basically pours her broken heart out for us to see and we can't turn away, and don't even really want to because she's magnetic and we feel such deep empathy for her and the enormous weight pushing down, down, down. It's really an almost supernatural moment, a transportive experience, like she's channeling the soul of someone from centuries back. Absolutely stunning. I was floored.
Hathaway’s big number comes during the film’s long first section, when we see the story’s protagonists at their most miserable. The picture never reaches that height again, but it would be ridiculous to expect that; there are few moments in film history as powerful.
Director Tom Hooper stays with his long take, close-up strategy throughout the film, with mixed results. On the upside, he’s an actor’s dream if you’ve got the talent. The movie’s performances are impeccable: Hugh Jackman as the besieged hero Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as the obsessive policeman pursuing him, are both given a lot of rope to deliver the goods or hang themselves, and both emerge triumphant. Jackman hits his notes better, he’s an actual Broadway star, while Crowe is more a growling rock and roll singer, but both convince as their iconic fictional characters. Rising star Eddie Redmayne as the young romantic revolutionary and Samantha Barks as another doomed heroine also stand out among the consistently good cast. Hooper gives every actor and actress a chance to deliver top notch performances in front of an unflinching camera of close ups and long takes, and the talent comes through again and again.
But the director’s choice that works so well for the actors, over the course of the film, diminishes the story’s epic scope. There's such a focus on the individual characters' drama that the grand historical events of revolution and sacrifice almost get lost, which is a little weird. Still, the acting is a Master's Class in A-List talent. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie where all the acting was so consistently virtuoso. It may well sweep the Oscars, I don't know, but I'll bet double digits on nominations at least. (***1/2) -- Tom Siebert
I came into this movie having average expectations, with a new role taken on by John Krasinski as a co-writer. However, knowing that director Gus Van Sant, highly known for Good Will Hunting, agreed to be on board, I knew he would deliver a very educational film about the process of fracking with a heartfelt storyline.
I wanted to see Promised Land because it was directed by Gus van Sant in a reunion with Matt Damon (they worked together on Good Will Hunting), and it was about fracking, a new geological technology to draw natural gas from the earth. Figured I’d learn something.
But it was only after asking a friend of mine who works within the bio-engineering field to join me, did I hear about the huge controversy this movie had with its negative stance against the fracking process within companies across the globe. This, of course, only made me more intrigued about the movie; I hope to learn more about the pros and cons of this quest for natural gas while being entertained by the likes of terrific actors -- Damon, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinksi.
Damon stars as a passionate corporate salesman who is sent to a rural town with his "this is just a job" partner (McDormand), to possess drilling rights on the town's properties in exchange for ostensibly generous financial offers to the small town folks. What seems to be a done-deal gets sidetracked when a town newcomer and environmentalist (The Office’s Krasinksi, wrote the script with Damon) spoils corporate plans with reports of destruction to land and livestock from his own family's farm.
Damon’s smooth-talking salesman struggles to keep the town aware of the economical gain and financial prospect, while standing passionately behind his corporate values. But a further twist gets thrown into the debate when Damon and Krasinki’s battle extends into a romantic triangle over the affections of a local schoolteacher (Rosemary Dewitt).
In the end, the movie leaves us with a heartfelt and earnest story that doesn’t really inform the audience much about fracking. It’s a feel-good movie about one town’s defense against corporatist arrogance rather than an at least attempting a balance of a few pros to all the cons about the environmental situation. But the movie did cause me to come home and research more about the issue myself; hopefully filmgoers seeking an emotional feel-good fix will do the same. (***) – Lindsay Doyle
Parental Guidance is a well-meaning holiday movie that tries to communicate the true meaning of family, yet has an odd mix of human warmth and kick-in-the-balls jokes. Because there’s so much talent in the cast, it’s a hard movie overall to dislike, but comes with few surprises and is the prototypical modern Hollywood “family” comedy with the strange contemporary mix of sentimentality and bathroom humor.
Billy Crystal, whose face looks weirder every passing year, plays a grandfather of three who loses his lifelong job as TV baseball talking head. His wife and lifelong cheerleader (a spirited Bette Midler) suggests they use their suddenly free time to get to know their grandchildren better when their only daughter (Marisa Tomei) asks them to pitch in and babysit the kids while she and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) travel. The new age mom and dad embrace research, science and technology to raise their kids, which presents all kinds of challenges for the grandparents.
Do the grandparents manage to bridge the gap between 'new age' and 'old school' with a common mutual understanding and simple listening? Is everyone happier and better off for it in the end? Duh. Crystal and Midler do their natural schtick as the grandparents, and their bickering provides some of the movie’s best spots. (**) -- Joko Halim