Revenge fantasies don’t get any more fantastical than “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s dazzlingly violent and outlandishly funny spin on Spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation films and America’s original sin.
Slavery is to “Django” what the Holocaust was to Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” -- a colossal wrong to be righted by a film geek’s best weapons: artistry, imagination and wicked humor.
The director’s latest homage to film’s good, bad and ugly most specifically bows to “Django,” Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 many-sequelled Italian shoot-’em-up.
(Franco Nero, the original Django, has a cameo here, along with just about every other god in Tarantino’s B-list pantheon, including Don Johnson, Michael Parks and Tom Wopat).
But Tarantino’s ransacking doesn’t end with the grindhouse, or America for that matter. Norse mythology and German opera get shout-outs alongside “Shaft” and “Mandingo.”
Recruited by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) joins his oddly ethical new buddy in the lucrative, bloody dead-or-alive trade.
“Kill white folks and they pay you for it?” Django says. “What’s not to like?”
After wreaking vengeance on various murderers and racists (including Klansmen who argue, Mel Brooks-style, over the proper size of eyeholes for their pointy hoods), Django and Schultz head to Candyland, an infamously hellish plantation where Django’s wife Hildy (short for Broomhilda von Shaft, and played by Kerry Washington) is owned by decadent, sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Even if the bounty hungers’ ruse to infiltrate Candyland feels strained, Tarantino uses it to good effect. He amps up the behind-enemy-lines tension until the only way out is the violent catharsis we know (and dread) is coming.
Fair warning: “Django Unchained” is gruesome even for Tarantino, with whippings, shootings and a vicious “Mandingo fight” (think human pit bulls). Even “Reservoir Dogs” fanatics might wonder if he’s gone too far.
But few directors can wrestle performances this good from actors who’ve been known to coast. DiCaprio is a revelation in his nastiest role ever and Foxx rises to the challenge of morphing from beaten-down slave to fastest gun in the South.
Waltz, a smiling scene-stealer, tops his Oscar-winning performance from “Basterds.” But the most unnerving characterization goes to Samuel L. Jackson.
Almost unrecognizable as an elderly house slave whose allegiance to the master is absolute, Jackson’s bone-tired Stephen isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before. He’s a traitor too mean to ask for pity, and “Django Unchained” is happy to oblige.
“Django Unchained,” from The Weinstein Co., opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: ****1/2 (Evans)
Coarse, cloying, grandiose and insanely long: Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Miserables” is guilty on every count. And so the international musical megahit that premiered in 1980 comes by its defects honestly.
Whether the songs (by Claude-Michel Schonberg, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer) are up to the level of Hugo’s majestic prose is a question it’s doubtful that the millions of people who adore them and I are ever going to agree on.
So I’ll simply acknowledge that Tom Hooper’s movie version is an almost ideal realization of the musical and is likely to transport anyone who can stand it in the first place.
During the first hour, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway -- as the parole-breaking ex-convict Jean Valjean, his relentless pursuer Javert and the luckless mother Fantine -- sing (it’s all sung) with fantastically intense conviction.
Hathaway, with her hair chopped off (desperate to support her child, Fantine has sold it for 10 francs), recalls Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc bound for the stake -- a resemblance that can’t be accidental.
Then Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter show up as the comically villainous M. and Mme. Thenardier, and that’s it for the magic. Audiences with a soft spot for these two performers may not care that their big number, the busy “Master of the House,” isn’t all that funny.
During the succeeding hours, the younger generation -- principally Eddie Redmayne as the idealistic revolutionary Marius, Amanda Seyfried as Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, and Samantha Barks as the lovelorn Eponine -- sing their hearts out, but they simply aren’t as involving as their elders.
They aren’t in the novel, either.
There’s a problem more specific to the movie, though. Theater and film move at different rhythms, and the big, heartfelt numbers designed to be showstoppers under the spotlight bring the movie, again and again, to a dead halt.
“Les Miz” is far from terrible, but intensity and conviction can take it only so far. The novel is big, square and overwhelming. The movie is big and square.
“Les Miserables,” from Universal, opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: *** (Seligman)
Even after three HBO documentaries convinced us of the so-called West Memphis Three’s innocence, Amy Berg’s new feature “West of Memphis” is essential, a vital and invigorating work of social justice and one of the year’s most powerful movies.
The details of the notorious Arkansas case are familiar by now: In 1993, teenage outcasts Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly were arrested for the horrific murders of three eight-year-old boys.
Largely on the basis of a coerced confession from the borderline mentally handicapped Misskelley, the West Memphis Three were convicted.
Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; Echols, with his Goth style and teenager’s fascination with the occult, was sent to death row.
All three were freed in 2011 after agreeing to Alford Pleas, a mind-bending bit of legalese that simultaneously asserts innocence while accepting the state’s claim of guilt.
Berg’s film, produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, revisits the case with a meticulous investigation and a convincing conclusion about the identity of the real killer.
“West of Memphis” argues, with devastating persuasiveness, that the stepfather of one of the murdered boys committed the crime. (At the time of the film’s release, no criminal charges had been brought or were planned).
Berg lays out her case with the logic of a first-rate prosecutor and the theatricality of a born storyteller.
“West of Memphis,” from Sony Pictures Classics, opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***** (Evans)
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and James S. Russell on architecture.