Thursday, October 8, 2015

NY Comic-Con News: "Back in Time" set to take us back to "Back to the Future"

At New York Comic-Con on Thursday, Jason Aron, the director of “Back in Time,” a documentary celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” was asked by an audience member, “Do you feel anything would have been different if Eric Stoltz had played Marty McFly?” (Stoltz  famously was replaced by Michael J. Fox as the lead of the film in the middle of shooting). Answered Aron: “We wouldn’t be sitting in this room.”

Touching on the enormous impact the “Back to the Future” and its two sequels had on pop culture, Aron said the documentary came about when, in the midst of working on a short film in 2013, strangers repeatedly would stop him to talk about the vintage DeLorean he was using. “It made me think we should make a documentary.” Two successful Kickstarter campaigns (raising $45,000 and over $140,000, respectively) and the assistance of “Back to the Future” co-writer Bob Gale and “Back in Time”’s co-executive producer Adam F. Goldberg (creator and show-runner of ABC’s “The Goldbergs”) later, Aron and Louis Krubich, executive producer, and Lee Leshen, producer, had interviewed cast members and crew of the original film including Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly), Steven Spielberg (executive producer) and Zemeckis (director), as well as VIP fans such as television producer Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Terry and Oliver Holler, who created a screen-accurate DeLorean time machine and have traveled to all 50 states with it to raise money for Fox’s foundation, which supports research for Parkinson’s Disease.
Never underestimate the impact of the DeLorean: In a clip from the documentary, Gale mentions that Ford offered thousands of dollars for the use of their Mustang in the movie. Gale’s response: “Doc Brown doesn’t drive a f—king Mustang.” Gale was a touchstone for the production of the documentary: “[He] really helped us out,” says Krubich, “[We said] ‘We need Lea [Thompson], can you help?’ In three or 4 minutes we had an e-mail address and in 30 minutes we had a scheduled date for the[interview].” Gale also assisted in getting clearance from Universal for the use of clips from the films.
Were the cast and crewmembers difficult to work with? Though all had busy schedules, some of them were surprisingly low-maintenance. On preparing for an interview with Lloyd, Leshen says, “We went to the Ralph’s [supermarket]…we got three different kinds of coffee, we got every kind of pretzel and chip you could imagine….he had one pretzel and a half a bottle of water. [it cost us]  $400 dollars.”

The labor of love paid off by giving the crew access to some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. “Riding [a rweal, experimental] hoverboard and feeling frictionless movement under your feet” was the number one experience Leshen took away from making the movie. Meeting superfans like Bill Shea, owner of one of the original DeLoreans used in the movies (valued at over $500,000) was another. Fans who were present at the panel discussion got an experience of their own to take home with them: Each attendee was given a special limited edition bottle of “Pepsi Perfect,” a soda featured in the 2015 scenes of “Back to the Future II.”

More importantly, “Back in Time” will impact lives in the present day. A 13-city tour of the movie, with music by the “BTTF” tribute band the Flux Capacitors and appearances by the famous car, will raise money for the Michael J. Fox foundation. The tour comes to NYC on November 2.

When asked what the most amazing thing the filmmakers have taken from the experience their journey, Krubich instead mentioned the chance of an event that seemed impossible when “Back to the Future II” came out that, if the movie got it right, was supposed to happen this year: “The cubs winning the world series this year…if [the “Back to the Future” creators] got that right, that will be the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Back in Time” premieres on Netflix streaming on Oct. 21. The “88MPH” theatrical tour comes to NYC’s Mason Hall on Nov. 22 and the Sharp Theater on Nov. 23.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Review: "The Muppets" gets a shaky start, but has potential

The Muppets
Tuesdays, 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST)

I had high hopes. I really did. While others clutched their Miss Piggy-endorsed pearls over the thought of a naughtier, “adult” take on the Muppets, I didn’t bat an eye. Having been a fan of the gang of misfits since their heyday during my childhood, and having familiarized myself with Jim Henson’s work over the years, I didn’t buy the notion that the Muppets were “for kids” in the first place. In fact, I’ve often said that they lost their way following Henson’s death in 1990 precisely because they were being treated as kiddy entertainment — you can keep your Muppet Treasure Island and others of its ilk. Bring on the double entendres!

True, I was a little disappointed that The Muppets was not going to be a variety show like the classic Muppet Show and the less-classic-but-had-its-moments Muppets Tonight! I felt then, and now feel more than ever, that variety is the medium that the characters truly thrive in. With Neil Patrick Harris singlehandedly attempting to bring back the genre with Best Time Ever, and 2011’s The Muppets and 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted’s focus on that aspect of their history, this could have been their moment to resurrect the form. But I kept an open mind about the single-camera mockumentary format, even if it’s long past being “new” post-The Office, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, Modern Family, and on and on and on. After all, the Muppets often thrive when you place them in situations you don’t expect to find them. So truly, I had high hopes.

Where did The Muppets go wrong? Simple. It just wasn’t very funny.

Like I said, I personally have no problem with the Muppets engaging in edgier humor. As an adult there are plenty of moments of their output during the Henson years that make you say, “How could I have missed that?” Henson had a wicked sensibility, and he and his writers imbued their work with a love of wordplay, innuendo, and even occasional insult humor. Look at the scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan, for example, where an amnesiac Kermit rips Miss Piggy apart for her insistence that she has a romantic relationship with him:
 “Maybe you expected me to go hog wild? Perhaps you could bring home the bacon! Ah, the sounds of love: ‘Soooooo-ey! Oink, oink!’ ”
But the problem with The Muppets is that apparently the entire joke of the show is to put wild, “adult” things in the mouths of the characters, as if to say, “OMG! The Muppets are now PG-13! That’s hysterical!” They just forgot actual jokes. Take for example, this dialogue among members of the band The Electric Mayhem early in the episode.

Floyd: “[He’s] not good on the road.” Animal: “So many women, so many towns.”

If this had been a scene featuring a human band in any TV show or movie made after, say, 1985, would it be funny? No, of course not. It would be trite. Cliché. At best it would be a shorthand character-defining moment, but certainly nothing that would make someone laugh out loud. It’s a stereotype that’s been done to death. But “the joke” here is that it’s Animal, a character with built-in recognition. “Wow! They’re implying that Animal, a puppet, has groupies! That’s amazing!” No, it’s not amazing. It’s not a joke. It doesn’t define the character because the character is already defined. This doesn’t even reach the level of sophistication of Meet the Feebles. And practically every joke is like this. Kermit “stress eats.” Wow! “Fozzie knows what ‘bear’ means in the gay community!” Wow! “Zoot is an addict.” That’s so, like, adult!

Compare this to these excerpts from when Kermit and Rowlf meet in The Muppet Movie: “I finish work, I go home, read a book, have a couple of beers, take myself for a walk and go to bed.” “I don’t mean to scare ya, my friend, but I betcha, come Father’s Day the litter bug’s gonna getcha.” Those lines are clever. They’re examples of wordplay that make you take a second and say, “He’s a dog, he goes to the bathroom by taking himself for a walk!” Or, “They’re talking about sex!” In other words, they’re jokes. They’re not for kids, they fit the characters that have already been established through years of familiarity, and they’re funny.

Aside from the ever-present feeling that the writers are trying to push buttons rather than craft punchlines, The Muppets also lacks an ingredient that has been present in almost every Muppets project for the last 50-plus years: Anarchy. Henson and his team (of which only two colleagues, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire, remain active Muppeteers) loved randomness, non sequiters, silly puns and sillier physical humor. A well-known quote from Henson regarding his comedic sensibility was, “It all ends in one of two ways: Either something gets eaten or something blows up.” Nothing gets eaten or blown up in The Muppets. Nor do we see ecstatic somersaulting penguins, weirdos getting shot out of cannons, incomprehensible chickens, dance numbers gone terribly wrong, inanimateobjects coming to life. Despite ready access to guest stars and musical acts, the writers feel hemmed in by the Larry Sanders Show-like premise, even though there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked if it had been infused with Muppety energy. At no time do the Muppets sing, or dance, or really do much of anything that hasn’t been done much better by real people elsewhere. It feels like such a wasted opportunity.

So, you might ask, did The Muppets do anything well? Absolutely. What The Muppets gets right is an area that hasn’t consistently been done well in the Muppet world, post-Henson: The relationships among the characters are solid. Even “broken up” (we’ll see how long that lasts), there is genuine chemistry and pathos in Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship (and let’s not forget that their initial relationship over many years of The Muppet Show was as a “couple” that one of the members denied being a part of). Likewise, Piggy is familiar and well-defined, and the one character who is perfect for this setting. Fozzie Bear’s interactions with his girlfriend’s family also generate actual laughs. And though Gonzo has yet to have a moment to shine, Scooter’s resurgence (many years after the death of Richard Hunt in 1992 put the character on the back-burner for years) was welcome and character-appropriate, as was his relationship to Kermit. The characters feel like themselves even if they don’t feel especially funny. Gone is the angst of the last two Muppet movies, where the central conflict was about Kermit being abandoned by his friends. Here, he is back being the able leader of the team and the character that holds the ensemble together.

Another welcome aspect to the show is that it is, in fact, about the Muppets. The real ones. In their last few movies and television specials it began to feel like the Muppets were doomed to playing second-fiddle to whatever name was lined up to “star” in their films. Between that and the introduction of post-Disney Muppet Walter (blissfully not present in the pilot), I had begun to fear that the writers and puppeteers were afraid to actually focus on the characters Henson and Co. created. Here, the celebrity guests are just that: guests who look happy to let the Muppets shine.

So there is some hope going forward, and I haven’t given up on the show just yet. If the characters we’re tuning in to see could just be funny, occasionally, the Muppets — and their eponymous show — might just have a future.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Steven Spielberg and Matt Patches ought to get over themselves

So, a friend of mine recently posted an interview Steven Spielberg granted to Esquire, and I was...annoyed.  In it, Spielberg is quoted as saying:
"We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn't mean there won't be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I'm only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us."
Now, to be fair, this is a mild statement in context. But Matt Patches' later commentary and the misleading headline blow this statement so far out of proportion in order to serve Patches' agenda that it rubbed me the wrong way. Enough that I think it's time for a good rant.

See, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I like superhero movies (at least some of them) just fine, while also acknowledging that there is currently an overabundance of them, and some are just plain bad (I won't say which, because someone will surely turn this into a fight over our respective taste in movies). If next year there are no superhero movies released, I'll be happy. If next year ten superhero movies are released, I'll see the ones I want to see.

However, what I can't stand is hypocrisy, disingenuousness, or pettiness, which is what I see reading this. Spielberg comes off in the article like a cranky old man who is worried his toys are being taken from him, which is far from the truth. At this point in his career, Spielberg should be secure enough in his legacy that he doesn't need to take potshots at others in his industry or start playing prognosticator. Patches, on the other hand, sounds like someone who is desperate to be seen as a champion of independent cinema while simultaneously coming off as a guy who is just repeating things that more thoughtful people have already said.

In fact there is so much wrong with this brief article that I need to break my objections to it down in pieces.

There are valid arguments to be made about the dominance of superhero movies on the current film calendar. There are also arguments that I find less valid (namely the ones that are breathlessly hysterical and forget that the movie industry, from its inception, has always been largely dominated by films that rely on the entertainment value of spectacle). However, any valid arguments are drowned out when they're made by the wrong person. Who is the wrong person? Steven Spielberg, of course. The man who is credited with inventing the blockbuster effects-driven movie as we know it, and who has continually, long after he began directing more "prestigious" projects, kept adding entries to the genre. In the past decade alone, Spielberg has been attached as director or producer to "War of the Worlds," "The Legend of Zorro," "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," "Super 8," "Cowboys and Aliens," "Real Steel," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Men in Black 3," "Jurassic World," and no fewer than three "Transformers" movies. He is attached to direct "Ready Player One," coming out in 2017.

How hypocritical does a man have to be to knock blockbuster films when they have been the primary source of his income for decades? Sure, he hasn't made "superhero movies" (though I would argue that Zorro, Indiana Jones, the Men in Black and the Transformers are superheroes of a sort), but occasionally turning out something "Based on a True Story" or a "message" picture does not give one the right to get on a high horse about popcorn entertainment.

Let's talk a little more about those prestige pictures. In between directing and producing good-old-fashioned popcorn entertainment like the "Indiana Jones" and "Jurassic Park" movies, Spielberg has racked up an impressive number of "serious" and non-genre films such as "Lincoln," "Schindler's List," "The Color Purple," "Saving Private Ryan," and "Catch Me If You Can." Nobody, including myself, can accuse him of being unable to tackle a variety of subjects. No filmmaker in history has a more diverse or successful body of work. 

But Spielberg's complaint about "Lincoln," of all movies, being tough to sell in Hollywood is pitiful. Why? Because "Lincoln" is a perfect example of the fact that, even when he isn't making popcorn entertainment, Spielberg is incapable of making "small" movies. "Lincoln," which has a story that certainly could have been told with a lower budget, had an ensemble cast with no fewer than 20 highly-regarded (and expensive), award-caliber leading and character actors,  plus a $65 million budget  — certainly not "Jurassic World"-size, but also hardly indy-film level. 

As for his style of direction, Spielberg is rarely capable of making a movie that is "quiet," "subtle" or "emotionally complex," all things we consider hallmarks of "small" filmmakers. Look up and down Spielberg's list of sweeping, emotive, panoramic films and one wonders why this man thinks he is the person to be championing personal film-making. Even Spielberg's "important" movies are filmed like they are blockbusters.

By the way, what would the issue have been if "Lincoln" had been picked up by *gasp* HBO? Spielberg still seems to be living in a world where television is for garbage and movies are the only "legitimate" way to present filmed drama. HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and numerous other networks have been the home of profound, well-written stories for years, now. Spielberg, stop clutching your pearls.

Again, no one can dispute that at this moment in time, superhero movies are in a dominant position in the marketplace, and only the most die-hard comic book geek would begrudge pruning the schedule a bit. But both Spielberg and Patches are presenting one or both of two equally ridiculous hypotheses: That the market can't support multiple examples of one genre, or that having multiple examples of one genre is bad for art. I can't comment on the latter premise  it seems like too subjective an opinion, though I personally tend to dispute the notion that making any one type of art somehow eliminates the possibility of another type. However, the other hypothesis is shown to be patently ridiculous when asserted by Spielberg, a man who has directed (or is scheduled to direct) 11 movies that have focused on one of two subjects: aliens and World War II. That's out of 34 movies total. 33 percent of his directorial output. Who is he to criticize any filmmakers for their lack of diversity?

Let's be very clear about the mythology of the superhero movie, which is currently having a resurgence in movie theaters and on television screens. Yes, the stunning success of these movies in recent years has led to an explosion, and many more in development. And yes, because of technological advances, the movies can get bigger and bigger and be budgeted for more and more money. But the idea that suddenly people are going to just "give up" on superheroes is absurd. Spielberg should know better  as a child he read comic books himself. Sure, the boom in superhero movies is a fairly new thing, but that ignores the fact that these movies are based on characters that have been around for decades  in some cases in excess of 70 years. Clearly there is something about the superhero that captures human (specifically American) imagination on a deep level. The prediction that they'll go away is about as ridiculous as predicting that Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula will go away." It is more than a little late to dispute the role of these characters in our culture.

Beyond all of the raging hypocrisy and lack of basic scholarship of Spielberg's angst (which Patches is more than happy to embroider upon), what burns me up more than anything is that the basic premise is completely wrong. The Western did not die.  Here is where I'm willing to concede that Spielberg meant something valid that he didn't actually express well, which is that certain genres wax and wane over time. I have no doubt that there will come a time when there are fewer superhero movies. People will tire of them, grosses will go down, movie-makers and film companies will move on. But superheroes won't "die" any more than Westerns did. I don't believe Spielberg meant what he said, but Patches runs with his point and desperately attempts to prove it while only succeeding in doing the opposite. Yes, "the stampede [for Westerns] died down." But Patches' own examples prove that the Western has never "died out." As long as there are Tarantinos, Coens, Eastwoods or other good filmmakers making good Westerns, the Western survives. As long as television fans hold out hope for a "Deadwood" follow-up, the Western survives. Call it "tumbleweeds," but don't call it dead

People also have spoken of the "death of the musical," while conveniently ignoring blockbusters like "Mamma Mia," "Chicago," and "Into the Woods" and TV audiences flock to watch "The Sound of Music" and "Peter Pan" live. They're speaking now of the "death of the serious film" as gorgeous and important movies like "12 Years a Slave" and "Boyhood" continue to dominate the awards circuit and make back their budgets. But movie genres do not die, as long as talented movie-makers keep them alive. The same will be the case for the superhero film.

THERE IS ROOM FOR EVERYONE: The bottom line is, it doesn't matter what Spielberg or Patches or Christopher Stansfield think about superhero movies. Clearly, people enjoy them. People also liked "Lincoln." People liked "The Theory of Everything." There is room in the theaters, on television, on the Internet for narrative of all types. Hoping that superhero movies "go away" does nothing to help those other types of narrative. It's just a petty way to disparage the work of fillm-makers who may care just as much about making a good "Captain America" movie as Spielberg cares about making a good Tom Hanks tearjerker. And it's beneath both Spielberg and Mr. Patches. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Film Review: Django Unchained is a Slave's Hero's Journey

While across the hall in another theater Abraham Lincoln and his Team of Rivals debate about the possibility of emancipation and use the legal process and a bloody Civil War to achieve that end, the title character of Quentin Tarantino’s incredible Django Unchained has a different method. Kill slavers. Make it bloody. And make it painful. History and Steven Spielberg tell us that it was Lincoln’s method that eventually got the job done, but I’ll be damned if Django’s way isn’t a lot more cathartic.

It is an interesting fact that Lincoln and Django Unchained were released in the same year, within a matter of weeks, and it isn't wrong to wonder if this is a sign that America is finally willing to tackle the subject of slavery head-on. One can only hope that is the case. Cinematically, it is an equally wonderful thing that we get the chance to see so clearly that Big Issues can be tackled in many, many, big ways. Anyone who dismisses Tarantino’s film as just another pulp fiction revenge film (though if that is all it is, it is enough) is missing the very Big Way he approaches Django's story.

And what a story it is – the film opens with the title character as one of several nameless slaves in chains being forced on a long march on bare feet from one owner to the next in the dead of winter. That the star, Jamie Foxx, is barely recognizable or even noticeable among his company is most likely intentional, just as the de-personalization of slaves was the very intentional method by which a majority of whites managed to sleep at night for hundreds of years as they and their neighbors perpetrated unspeakable horrors on other humans. After an incongruous German in a tooth-festooned buggy shows up to “parlay” with the slave's captors (James Remar and James Russo), killing one and leaving the other to be dealt with by his former “property”, Django gets a horse, a winter coat, and most importantly, a name.

What follows is the most linear of Tarantino’s movies. This time around the director forgoes his usual time-shifts and digressions to focus on Django and his long journey to claim his life, identity, and wife (played by Kerry Washington). Naturally, being a Tarantino revenge movie (his third in a trilogy that began with Kill Bill and continued with the alternative-history Inglourious Basterds), this involves a great deal of violence and language that will certainly offend many people, as it is intended to do.

It is wrong, however, to think that violent catharsis is the only aim or method of Django Unchained. Instead, this is arguably Tarantino’s first attempt at making mythology. The sequence of events in Django are straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. After Django receives his “call to adventure,” shedding his former passivity to go on a quest, his Merlin/Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (played with charisma and humanity by Christoph Waltz) in turn provides him with talismans in the form of guns and a horse. In Django’s hands these guns are supernatural – that a man who would never have been allowed near weaponry (or a horse) of any kind is such an exceptional marksman and natural rider proves this. Django is then able to "cross the threshold" by dispatching his former slave-masters, the Brittle Brothers (Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, and M.C. Gainey), and rather than disappearing back into obscurity, goes on to a greater quest – the rescue of his wife, Broomhilda, from her current captors. Certainly the fact that “Hildy” is (phonetically) named after one of the daughters of Wotan, King of the Gods, is a clear tip-off that she is a princess in distress and the worthy object of any hero’s quest.

Likewise, it should come as no surprise that there are trials along the way. After his initial assistance in claiming the bounty of the Brittle Brothers, Django is taken on as apprentice and partner in bounty hunting by Schultz, and through a series of trials (including the attempted revenge of a group of wannabe Klansmen led by Don Johnson) and the collection of many more bounties, Django eventually learns that the villain he must defeat comes in the form of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCarprio). Candie is not only the guardian of his own protected kingdom (“Candieland”) and damsel Broomhilda, but also the sadistic owner of “mandingo fighters” (slaves forced to fight to the death by their owners for sport), and the lord of his own dragon/Darth Vader in the form of self-proclaimed “house n----r” Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Naturally, Django succeeds. I suppose that's a spoiler, but you can’t make a good revenge movie without the hero getting his revenge, and you can’t make a Hero’s Journey without the mentor figure eventually dying, leaving the hero on his own to use the skills he acquired. The rescue of Broomhilda turns out not to be the ultimate goal of the quest – in truth, what both Django and Broomhilda are questing for is their own agency, which comes to them only after a literal trial by fire in the form of the ultimate destruction of Candieland and all of its evil.

Of course, this simple retelling of the plot can not possibly prepare the audience for the levels of gore, violence, and profanity contained within, though familiarity with Tarantino’s other work will probably suffice. It also does no justice to the uniformly excellent performances by the entire cast of actors. As usual, minor roles are filled by a parade of stars and former stars that give the audience the pleasure of saying, “Hey, wasn’t that-“ every few minutes. First there is the aforementioned Don Johnson, naturally called “Big Daddy” and making the most of every moment of his time dressed up like Colonel Sanders. Then there is Jonah Hill as a comically inept Klansman, and Lee Horsley(!) as a corrupt Sheriff, and Tom Wopat(!!) as a Marshall. And Russ Tamblyn! And Michael Parks! And Robert Carradine! And Bruce Dern! And on and on and on. There is even Walton Goggins, who is simultaneously appearing in that other movie about slavery across the way.

Every one of these actors has an absolute ball being as ugly or villainous as necessary, but the two A-List actors who feature as the main villains of the piece, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, reach new heights (or depths) in their acting careers playing completely against type. DiCaprio rarely has the opportunity to play an unabashed bad guy, and it is testament to his performance that he makes your skin crawl from the first moment he appears on screen to the time he is finally dispatched. Pay special attention to the scene where, in anger, he crushes a wine glass in his hand. That was unplanned, and the blood is real, but DiCaprio remains committed throughout and never breaks character.

Jackson, on the other hand, finally gets to play something other than his archetypal badass character, and his willingness to deglamorize himself as an evil version of the guy on your box of rice lets him prove that he actually does have more than one note to play. His is a quieter evil, and Jackson manages to portray that evil with nuance and menace even while shuffling along with a cane and white hair.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington as the Hero and his Princess both do an exceptional job of making you feel genuine emotion for them, and Foxx especially shouldn't be overlooked simply because he underplays his stoic-by-design character. It is in the scenes when he is most silent that you can see exactly what is going on behind his eyes as he must ingratiate himself into enemy territory and in some cases stand idly by while others are destroyed in front of him.

Naturally, the very frequent use of the “n word” has made a lot of people very uncomfortable, and it is worthwhile that it be discussed and argued as much as necessary. However, people should feel uncomfortable -- that is, in fact, the point. At no time did I feel it was being used in a way that was historically inaccurate. It’s worth noting that the few occasions we have seen slavery depicted on screen in all its brutality have been on television, where such language is not permitted. Like it or not, the word “nigger” is a fact of history, and if it makes some white audiences squirm then it is as it should be. (I should point out, strictly anecdotally, that the audience I saw Django Unchained with was majority black (I was one of only four white people in the audience, by my count), and though I didn't hear much reaction to the use of that particular word, I did hear quite a lot of cheering every time a white person got blown to bits. Which, again, is as it should be, I think.)

Another facet of the movie that I imagine people will take a great deal of offense to is just how funny it is in places. The scenes with the Klansmen, for example, or Jackson’s shuffling obsequiousness before he reveals how truly evil he is, provoke genuine laughter, as does Django's initial choice in clothing when he is finally allowed to dress himself for the first time. And then they make you uncomfortable for laughing. I am not sure that Tarantino should be condemned for making people feel uncomfortable about this period of history or for knowing how to deftly release the tension whenever it is necessary. At its best, some of his slapstick ranks with Mel Brooks’s work in The Producers and Blazing Saddles, which I imagine would be condemned today by the same people who think that there is no place for humor in Tarantino’s films.

It feels wrong to get through an entire review without going into detail about the excellent camera work, the great editing, the remarkable-as-usual anachronistic soundtrack, or the conscious sense of homage that Tarantino brings to every one of his idiosyncratic scenes. But we know what to expect from him, so there’s no real point in dissecting each camera angle. Needless to say, you can tell this is a Tarantino film, and each choice is deliberate and largely successful.

In conclusion, if you want to see history as it (basically) was, you will be well-served by seeing Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln. If you want to see history as perhaps it ought to have been, you owe it to yourself to see Django Unchained. Frankly, I think each film informs the other wonderfully, and also informs audiences – not just of useful facts, but also of important feelings, including a very justifiable rage and a pain that the country is only just now getting around to confronting. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Film Review: Les Misérables is a Faithful Representation of Its Source- Perhaps Too Faithful

“Les Misérables is soooo faithful.”

“How faithful is it?”

“It’s so faithful that even the Bishop who gave Valjean his silver told it to lighten up.”

As musical adaptations go, Les Misérables does exactly what it intends to do I can’t think of one in recent years (or really, ever) that works so hard to capture every moment of the play that it is based on. Not a scene goes missing nor a lyric unsaid, and the cast and director Tom Hooper deserve a great deal of credit for taking what was once the most spectacular (emphasis on spectacle) of modern musicals and making it just as spectacular on the screen. Unfortunately, without the distance of a proscenium and orchestra pit between the characters and the audience, so much fealty to the material magnifies everything not just the genuinely earned moments of emotion and release provided by the sometimes-thin book and score, but also much of the inherent triteness and cheese that even the most devoted fans have laughed off over the 30 years that Les Mis has been performed on stages around the world.

Despite being based on a doorstop of a novel by Victor Hugo, the Dickens of France, the plot of Les Mis, the musical, is episodic and often sketchy. The prologue of the film introduces us to the 19th Century French convict Jean Valjean (a suitably de-handsomed Hugh Jackman), who in a few moments of recitative explains to the audience and his tormentor, the rigid Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), that he was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry sister and nephew and has now earned his parole by working at hard labor for 19 years. In turn, Javert points out that Valjean will never be free of his torment as long as he has to show the identification papers that brand him a dangerous criminal. 

What follows is a series of falls from grace and moments of redemption for Valjean, who is taught, in succession, the meaning of forgiveness from a Bishop he attempts to rob (Colm Wilkinson, the first Valjean on the West End and Broadway); the meaning of compassion by his former-employee-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway, who wrings every possible moment of genuine emotion and several more moments of the false kind in her brief time on film); and the meaning of love by Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), whom he adopts after Fantine dies from what one can only assume is musical syphilis. He does this all while running away from Javert and successfully remaking himself as a rich businessman several times. 

At the same time (or rather, about a third of the way through the film), a French revolution not THAT one, which took place years earlier, but another, not particularly successful one – is being fomented by a combination of impoverished citizens, bourgeois students, and plucky waifs. It is due to those political events that a now-teenaged Cosette meets radical Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius then is given his own struggle, namely the reconciliation of his love for Cosette with both the urchin Éponine’s (Samantha Barks) love for him, and his revolutionary ideals, which are embodied by the revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), who appears to be struggling with a bit of a crush on Marius, too. Along the way everyone Valjean meets finds him or herself either illuminated or tortured by his nobility, with the exception of the comic relief reprobates (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who conveniently end up in every town Valjean and Javert do.

Somehow these events manage to simultaneously be light on detail and long on running time. In the stage musical, this is saved by both the spectacle and the score, which has been derided by some as being unsophisticated but which manages on a visceral level to be emotionally stirring. I am happy to say that there are many, many moments where the spectacle and score do the same on screen. 

Visually, Les Misérables is the very definition of “epic.” The sets are convincingly 19th century and French. The actors are carefully covered in grime and sores and are dressed the way people imagine the French to dress. The battles are bloody and well-shot. There are plenty of helicopter shots and crane shots and sweeping panoramas that fully justify seeing this movie on the big screen. Meanwhile, the orchestrations are suitably grand and the music (which never stops the film is almost completely sung-through) works as well as it does on stage, which is to say that if you like Les Misérables’ score (and I do) you will still like it here.


As grand a spectacle as Les Mis is on the stage, it is still very much a stage show. Take away the turntable and the magically-forming barricade and the various lighting effects, and one still is aware that he is sitting in a theater. It is a paradox of musicals that, more often than not, the more “realistic” the show is, the less easy it is to actually believe it. Even the biggest musical theater fans (and I’m certainly among them) recognize the inherent oddness of characters bursting into song when a few casual statements will do. We suspend our disbelief because on stage emotion has the space to be genuinely sentimental and genuinely big. A little brown powder on the face and the occasional red-dyed corn syrup on the shirt are more than enough to convey dirt and blood on the “martyrs of France” on stage. But seeing live rats on stage or genuine sewage would not add verisimilitude in fact, it would take us out of the moment. And that is the issue with this adaptation it is both note-for-note faithful to the show and also faithful to the film concept of “reality.”

On stage, it is very easy to be taken in by the rote-but-meaningful degradation of Fantine, and to genuinely feel for her. When she finally sings the piano-bar staple “I Dreamed a Dream” it is a release, and it is sentimental, and it works. It is quite another thing, however, to witness America’s Sweetheart Anne Hathaway getting her hair sheared off, her teeth pulled, and her body abused in every gory detail. When I saw in high definition every bit of her becoming debased, deranged, and diseased, and then heard “I Dreamed a Dream” – well, it was hard not to find it a little trite. What once created pathos now just creates bathos.

It also has to be mentioned that Les Mis is a long show. In the theater, audiences get the respite of an intermission and the emotional outlet of applauding the curtain close on the Act I ending number, “One Day More.” On film there is no intermission, and “One Day More” simply…ends. Then we’re back into the long slog of battles and cat-and-mouse-chases and endless suffering experienced by the poor of France. After the last decent number, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” we then get to sit through an ending that rivals Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in its number of epilogues. Having seen the musical numerous times I knew what was coming but even I started checking my watch while waiting for the damn kids to get married and Valjean to just die, already. It’s here that it would have been nice for Hooper to start asserting directorial privilege and “adapt” rather than “reproduce.”

Much has been made of Hooper’s controversial decision to record the actors singing live rather than lip-syncing to a soundtrack as has been done in practically every movie musical since the forties (with the exception of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, which has stood for years as proof of why live recording should never, ever be attempted). It is a testament to how far film technology has come, as well as the gameness of the actors and the skill of the director, that it isn’t noticeable at all. I am not sure whether it added anything to the film, but it certainly didn’t take anything away from it. 

Unfortunately, as has been the case with movie musicals since Chicago revived the genre a decade ago, the actors seem to have been cast in spite of their voices, rather than because of them. Jackman does a very good job of both acting and singing a demanding part, and he deserves credit for about 50% of what works in the film. Even though he doesn’t really have the type of singing voice I’ve come to expect from stage Valjeans, he at least has a singing voice, and he uses it to good effect here, as one would expect from his musical theater background. Hathaway also proves that she is a decent singer, though her one big song could have used a little less Acting-with-a-capital-A.

Crowe, on the other hand, is simply not a very good singer, and could have benefited from  studio recording. This is a shame, because he is perfectly cast as the imposing and stalwart Javert and would have done very well by the role if it had been in a non-musical film. It was jarring that every time he opened his mouth I expected to hear a menacing baritone and instead heard an Australian whine sung directly through the nose. I suspect this is why he appeared to be  the only actor in the movie who lost a verse of his big number.

I know I’m in the minority when I say that Redmayne is miscast as Marius, and I know a lot of people find him very attractive. He is a good actor. But he is certainly the most Howdy Doodyish-actor I’ve seen in the role (with the exception of constipated-looking Nick Jonas, who appeared in the recent anniversary concert), and his singing voice, while on key, is sung through a constricted throat and a clenched jaw, which makes him sound vaguely like Kermit the Frog doing a Nelson Eddy impersonation. On the other hand, Seyfried as Cosette is fine. She suffers from the fact that the character has always been a weak link in the show -it’s not the first time I’ve found myself wondering why Marius falls for her insipidity instead of the far more interesting and lovable Éponine – but she does what she can with the part, and while her voice isn’t strong it is tuneful.

Speaking of Éponine, she is played by one of the standouts of the movie. Barks is one of the few actors in the film to underplay rather than over-emote, which is especially impressive considering that on stage her role is usually overdone to the point of being annoying. Barks deserves kudos for being the least whiny, most genuinely moving Éponine I’ve ever seen. The other standout is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, who manages to both be convincing in his role and also able to actually sing. I am sure it is not a coincidence that the three best singers in the film (four including Wilkinson, who sounds exactly like he did 25 years ago) are the ones who have actually appeared on stage in musical theater. What is astonishing is that they are also the four actors who seem most aware of the fact that they are not on stage and don’t have to mug for the back row.

I am not forgetting Cohen and Carter as the Thenardiers, though I would like to. Restraint is in neither actor’s repertoire, but their mugging and Cohen’s bizarre accent choices (he sings “Master of the House” as though he’s playing Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau playing an innkeeper) take them to a new level of irritating. Their comic relief characters blend seamlessly with the action in the stage version and are generally a welcome break from all of the portentousness and pretension. In this adaptation, however, they appear to be in an entirely different movie than everyone else. 

The movie that everyone else appears in is a good movie. It is not a “great” movie by any means, but then again it isn’t a “great” show to start with. Is it worth seeing? Of course - but don’t drink a lot of water beforehand, and don’t expect to replace your beloved London Cast Recording with the soundtrack. Ultimately, Les Mis is best in a live theater, with a live cast and an audience you can walk out humming the songs with. Les Misérables, the movie musical, is a great record of a show that for better or for worse has become a cultural phenomenon, but it is still only a (very magnified) copy of the real thing.