DJANGO UNCHAINED. Only people who take themselves too seriously don't like Quentin Tarantino movies. Such people include Spike Lee, New Yorker critic David Denby, and me on Christmas. Lee has said he won't see Django because it's disrespectful to his ancestors, and he's had a beef with QT from day one. Denby got on a similar high horse when he reviewed Inglourious Basterds (2009), venomously panning it and calling out Tarantino for making light of the Holocaust. Lee and Denby are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I find them myopic and wrong-headed. I say this because my initial negative reaction to the movie was equally dumb.
I convinced my parents to go see Django with me and my wife on opening day. They've been enthusiastic Tarantino fans since I (in Mom's words) coerced them into taking me to Pulp Fiction when I was a pre-teen. Despite this, they grumbled at me about going to the movies on Christmas Day. Add to that seed of neurosis a theater so packed we couldn't sit together, and my goose was cooked. From the front row, I fretted over every racial slur and practical squib. I watched the movie through a lens of self-involvement and fear, and I couldn't enjoy myself.
Nothing could have been stupider: My parents both loved this movie, as much for its over-the-top bloodletting as for its sublimely satisfying revenge trajectory. I went back the next day and watched it again, and I'm back on board, but it was an interesting experience. Having now seen a Tarantino movie as if through someone else's eyes, I feel better equipped to dismiss the haters.
Tarantino detractors tend to criticize his work for its lack of moral shading and complexity. Which to me is like complaining about a delicious cheeseburger because it isn't duck a l'orange. Tarantino's medium is genre film, and he is unrivalled in his field. He eats, sleeps and breathes cinema and makes genre movies by synthesizing genre movies. As a young man, his influences were a little art-house, a little intentionally obscure. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, in particular, are filled with sly narrative and visual references to the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism (plus, of course, 1970s American culture). As he's aged, he's broadened his reach again and again, pulling in ever more disparate, often highly accessible elements.
I fell in love with his early stuff for its beautifully ugly language and screen-searing violence. But I also love his dazzling color palette and meticulously designed camera moves. His later movies, though they don't adhere to the same style tenets, are braver and maybe bolder for it. He's not hiding his influences anymore: in Django we see aspects of just about every Western ever made, from the muddy streets to the breathtaking snowy vistas to the smart haberdashery. Tarantino's grown so much as a writer that he can build and sustain almost palpable tension, scene after scene after scene. Remember the opening of Inglourious Basterds? Much of the second half of Django runs on that same breathless, hurtling, dialog-driven intensity.
Django Unchained is by far Tarantino's ballsiest work, and maybe his best. Django (Jamie Foxx, in a part I can't imagine anyone else playing) throws in with liberal-minded dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz offers our hero a business partnership, freedom and the eventual rescue of his still-enslaved wife in exchange for some help identifying three particularly odious ne'er do wells. Django turns out to be a natural-born gunslinger, and their working relationship flourishes. They track Django's beloved to nightmarish plantation owned by a dapper sadist named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where everything comes to a head. Waltz is brilliant and charming, as always, and it's great fun to watch him play a good guy. DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, as his valet Stephen, give the best performances of their impressive careers. It takes a steady hand to write a screenplay this subversive and masterful, and an iron constitution to see it through to completion.
Django Unchained is hilariously funny, shockingly violent, and filled with inflammatory talk. It has and will continue to provoke conversations about race in America, and whether a white filmmaker has the "right" to make a movie about black experience. I think it's important that we have the conversation, but I also think it misses the point. Tarantino's work is all Pop-Art elevated: a genre invented of genre, become fine art. It's not the job of that art to serve as an ethical blueprint or a commentary on past or present social turpitude. The art exists unto itself, and it's a nice fringe benefit if, as in this case, it sparks discussion. R. 165m.
LES MISÉRABLES. Don't. Just don't. This one is alarmingly bad. It sets wooden dialog to worse music and forces talented actors to sing in extreme close-up.
As I understand it, director Tom Hooper's (The King's Speech) adaptation remains faithful to the umpteen-selling, award winning, somehow much-beloved stage production. There are some necessary tweaks, but the screenplay is essentially the Broadway book. So I suppose it only makes sense that people are seeing it in droves, and that the audience at the screening I attended actually applauded at the end.
It all looks very expensive, with well-dressed sets and rich costumes. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are both charming and can belt out a number, but no one should have to sing songs like this.
Admittedly, musicals are a hard sell for me in the first place, but I've been pleasantly surprised in the past. Not so today: everything about Les Miserables feels misguided, corny, simplistic and disheartening. PG13. 157m.
-- John J. Bennett
Was your first workweek of 2013 a drag? The Arcata Theatre Lounge looks to brighten your spirits Friday evening with Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002), a breezy cat-and-mouse comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an underage conman and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent on his tail. 8 p.m. Still grumpy? Try cranking the happy knob even higher on Sunday with the computer-animated dancing penguin comedy Happy Feet (2006), a family movie that manages to sneak in an environmentalist message. If chipper movies don't do the trick, try beer, pizza and Manfish. What's Manfish? It's a 1956 B-movie based on a couple of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, and it's the feature for next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night. Doors at 6 p.m., movie at 7:30.
THE HOBBIT. Peter Jackson's gonna milk this Middle Earth business for all it's worth, isn't he? This bloated Lord of the Rings prequel (part one of three) is a drag. PG13. 169m.
THE GUILT TRIP. Odd couple road comedy starring Seth Rogen as The Seth Rogen Character and Barbra Streisand as his embarrassing Jewish mother. PG13. 95m.
JACK REACHER. Tom Cruise stars in the title role, a former Army major turned vigilante drifter who gets pulled into a mass-shooting case that's not what it seems. Slick if forgettable. PG. 130m.
LIFE OF PI. Ang Lee's adaptation of the bestselling book by Yann Martel is a visual feast, a technological marvel and a glib homily about spirituality. PG. 127m.
LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.
MONSTERS, INC. 3D. See, there's a prequel coming out next summer called Monsters University, so obviously you should take the kids to see the original in 3D. G. 92m.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as grandparents who use old-school discipline on their wacky, 21st century grandkids. Comedic hijinks allegedly ensue. PG. 104m.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost team up to make kids believe in them again. But where's Jesus? PG. 97m.
SKYFALL. James Bond battles his Freudian demons and a swishy-sinister Javier Bardem in one of the most satisfying 007 films to date. PG13. 143m.
THIS IS 40. In this "sort-of sequel" to Knocked Up, writer-director Judd Apatow cast his own wife and kids alongside Paul Rudd to examine the tragicomic reality of marriage and parenting. R. 134m.
RED DAWN. Yes, they remade that Patrick Swayze movie from the 1980s. This time it's the North Koreans invading small-town America. PG13. 114m.
-- Ryan Burns